Don and Evelyn Knapp of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, are civil rights pioneers – if you believe the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).The Religious Right’s most visible legal arm filed a lawsuit against the city last Friday on behalf of the Knapps, who are ordained ministers in the Four Square Gospel church and run The Hitching Post wedding chapel. In a statement, the ADF referred to the chapel as a “religious ministry” and claimed that the Knapps had run afoul of Coeur d’Alene’s anti-discrimination ordinance by refusing to perform same-sex weddings.“Months before voter-approved protections for marriage were struck down in Idaho, city officials warned Donald and Evelyn privately and publicly that if those laws were struck down, a city nondiscrimination ordinance would require them to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies in their privately owned chapel, or they would face the consequences,” the group asserted, and added, “On October 17, 2014, the Knapps respectfully declined such a ceremony and now face up to 180 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines for each day they decline to perform that ceremony.”It didn’t take the Religious Right long to respond to this alleged injustice. At Herman Cain’s website, Dan Calabrese branded the situation as “fascism” and claimed that Idaho authorities are actually threatening to jail the couple.
“If you are risking jail, not because you did anything to anyone, but because you refused someone else's demand that you provide a service that is anathema to your faith - then we have a new civil rights crisis in this nation, and homosexuals are not the ones with the problem at all,” Calabrese wrote.But there’s a bit more to the story than jack-booted government authorities and a persecuted pair of ministers. In fact, the Coeur d’Alene Press reports that there may be some problems with the ADF’s account. For starters, the newspaper says the Knapps have never actually been asked to perform a same-sex wedding; nor have they been threatened with arrest.
City officials did note they have privately communicated with the Knapps about the anti-discrimination ordinance, and informed the couple that if they did not register the chapel as a non-profit religious corporation, they could be subject to a fine and possible jail time if they violated the ordinance. They city’s argument seems to be that the chapel, as a profit-making business, is expected to adhere to public accommodation laws.“Their lawsuit was something of a surprise because we have had cordial conversations with them in the past, and they have never disclosed that they have recently become a religious corporation,” City Attorney Mike Gridley told the Press.
Gridley also stated that officials have been in contact with ADF attorney David Cortman to discuss the Knapps’ situation, and added the city does not intend to prosecute any churches or religious non-profits for refusing to either perform or provide services for same-sex weddings.
The Press contacted the Knapps to verify the ADF’s version of events, but the duo didn’t help their case. They admitted that the chapel is not registered as a ministry. (In fact, it is registered as a for-profit limited liability company with the Idaho Secretary of State's office.)
The Knapps’ website made this clear. It contained language stating that the couple was willing to offer a variety of religious-themed weddings as well as secular civil services. There was no implication that this was a Christian business. That language has since been scrubbed from the site.
So what’s really going on here?
The Religious Right has claimed for years that members of the clergy would be punished for refusing to perform same-sex marriages; it's been a major rallying cry for their base. But it hasn’t happened. Massachusetts has had legal same-sex marriage for a decade now. No clergy have ever been sanctioned for their views.
It looks as if the ADF and its allies were so eager to promote this “persecuted church” line that they went looking for a case. Unfortunately for them, the facts in this one are very murky. The Knapps have not been threatened with arrest for refusing to perform ceremonies that violate their consciences. They have experienced no consequences whatsoever for their views, and as long as they register their chapel as a non-profit religious ministry, they never will.
That’s quite a different story from what the right-wing is peddling. The LGBT-themed site New Civil Rights Movement put it bluntly in a headline: “Almost Everything You've Been Told About The Idaho Wedding Chapel Story Is A Lie.”The police aren’t going to storm the doors of any church and no ministers will be dragged to jail for their views.
Americans United has been clear all along: No church can be compelled to offer religious services to same-sex couples. The First Amendment protects against that. But the Hitching Post isn’t organized as a tax-exempt house of worship. It is a profit-making business. If the Knapps really want the right to discriminate, they have the legal option to reorganize their chapel and become a religious non-profit.This is a fabricated controversy. Let’s hope the courts see that.