By: Emily Conley
The city attorney of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, now says the two pastors of The Hitching Post will not be forced to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.
In his words, the whole thing was a “misperception.”
It doesn’t surprise us at all that the city is now backing away from the statements they made earlier. After all, lawsuits and massive public outcries have been known to have that effect.
To our clients Don and Evelynn Knapp, the city attorney’s comments are a great relief. The Knapps faced up to six months in jail, fines of up to $1,000, or both, for declining to perform a same-sex ceremony in violation of the city’s nondiscrimination public accommodation ordinance. And under the city’s ordinance, each day a violation continues is a separate offense, so the potential jail time and fines were accruing rapidly since the Knapps had already declined to perform two same-sex wedding ceremonies.
But still, it’s frustrating that misinformation and cover up of the facts continue.
As far as the “misperception” goes, an attorney for the city made it clear on at least three occasions that since The Hitching Post Wedding Chapel is a for-profit business, they would be considered a public accommodation, and therefore subject to the nondiscrimination ordinance.
The city attorney said it on TV:
“For-profit wedding chapels in the city now are in a position where last week the ban would have prevented them from performing gay marriages, this week gay marriages are legal, pending an appeal to the 9th Circuit. If you turn away a gay couple, refuse to provide services to them, that you would provide for anyone else, then in theory you violated our code and you’re looking at a potential misdemeanor citation.”
And was quoted saying it in a newspaper:
“I would think that the Hitching Post would probably be considered a place of public accommodation that would be subject to the ordinance.”
After these reports came out, Don Knapp called the city attorney’s office, which twice confirmed that he and his wife would be in violation of the ordinance if they declined to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony at The Hitching Post.
What changed? (I mean, besides the lawsuit and public outcry.)
Nothing. The Knapps recently changed from an S-corp to a limited liability company (LLC) in Idaho, both of which are for-profit entities. In a separate document, they stated that they operated The Hitching Post according to their religious beliefs and used the term “religious corporation” as a short-hand to reflect its religious purpose and mission.
Latching onto the term “religious corporation,” the city tried to “clarify” the issue in a letter after the lawsuit was filed, claiming that they were unaware that the Hitching Post was a not-for-profit religious corporation when they made earlier comments, and not-for-profit “religious corporations” aren’t subject to the ordinance – only for-profit enterprises are.
The only problem: The Hitching Post is still a for-profit enterprise.
And in the letter, the city did “clarify” the consequences for those for-profit businesses:
“If they are operating as a legitimate not-for-profit religious corporation then they are exempt from the ordinance like any other church or religious association. On the other hand, if they are providing services primarily or substantially for profit and they discriminate in providing those services based on sexual orientation then they would likely be in violation of the ordinance.”
While we are grateful and relieved that the city is backing off on enforcing the ordinance against the Knapps, several questions still need to be answered.
The city needs to define what they mean by a “religious corporation.” While the city is now exempting the Knapps’ for-profit wedding chapel, many other for-profit business owners need clarification on whether their religiously-run businesses are also exempt from the ordinance.
The legal structure of the Knapps’ wedding chapel as a for-profit places them in the same category as Barronelle Stutzman, a Christian florist who lovingly served a same-sex couple for nine years but declined to design their wedding flowers, or the Giffords, who declined to host a same-sex ceremony in their home, although the couple was welcome to host their reception there.
Christians that operate businesses like these in Coeur d’Alene need to know that acting on their faith will not violate the city’s ordinance as well.
It’s clear that this nondiscrimination ordinance still has issues. We’re hopeful that the city will make changes to the law to protect both nonprofit religious organizations, and for-profit business owners who simply want to live out their faith.