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What's Next for the Christian Chapel Owners Who Refuse to Back Down From Refusal to Marry Gays?

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"The city has decided to cancel the right of for-profit businesses to operate under their religious beliefs."

Photo credit: Shutterstock

The ordained ministers locked in a legal battle with an Idaho city over their refusal to marry gay couples at their for-profit chapel are refusing to back down, with the city of Coeur d’Alene responding to their federal lawsuit by asking that the family reconsider taking legal action.

Jeremy Tedesco, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative legal firm representing Donald and Evelyn Knapp, owners of Hitching Post Wedding Chapel, told TheBlaze Wednesday that city attorney Michael Gridley confirmed in a letter Monday that "for-profit companies … are subject to the non-discrimination ordinance."

"As far as we're concerned, our client is still at risk of being found of being in violation," Tedesco said. 

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In a letter addressed to the Alliance Defending Freedom, Gridley explained that the family would likely be governed by a non-discrimination ordinance barring them from discrimination against gays and lesbians based on their current for-profit business status.

"My office has responded to questions from your clients in the past and told them that, based on the facts presented and their corporate status at the time, they would likely be govemed by the anti- discrimination ordinance if a complaint was made against them," he wrote.

Gridley also said that the lawsuit was a surprise to officials, describing past conversations with the Knapp family as "cordial." The city attorney added that he believes the lawsuit is premature and urged the chapel owners to reconsider filing it. 

"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," Gridley wrote, noting that he had heard the family recently filed to become a religious corporation. "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."

The attorney also noted, though, that a portion of the ordinance states that it will be "construed and applied in a manner consistent with first amendment jurisprudence regarding the freedom of speech and exercise of religion," alluding to the fact that the Knapps' rights would potentially be protected.

The letter makes no mention of the threats of fines or jail time that the Alliance Defending Freedom has mentioned in its discussion of the case.

As TheBlaze previously reported, if the Knapps refuse to marry gay couples, they could “face months in jail and/or thousands of dollars in fines,” according to a press release from the conservative legal firm.

The Alliance Defending Freedom also said the couple could face up to 180 days in jail or $1,000 in fines for each day they refuse.

"My understanding … is that each time they decline to perform a same-sex ceremony, they're in violation of the ordinance," Tedesco said. "Every day they decline they are guilty of a separate misdemeanor."

Photo credit: Shutterstock Photo credit: Shutterstock

The attorney said that, as of Wednesday, the Knapps have already refused two gay couples following the legalization of same-sex marriage in Idaho last week.

"It seems the city has carte blanche to pursue [the ordinance] however they want … that's a serious problem constitutionally," Tedesco said. "The city has decided to cancel the right of for-profit businesses to operate under their religious beliefs."

He added, "The important principal here is people have every right to run their business according to their beliefs. A city government can't put people to the question of their faith or livelihood."

Tedesco also noted that it's not as though there aren't other places to get married, adding that the local magistrate — where gay and straight couples, alike, can wed — is only 167 feet away from Hitching Post Wedding Chapel.

He said that the Alliance Defending Freedom is hoping to obtain a temporary restraining order that will protect the Knapps from any penalties for exercising their faith as a for-profit business.

"I think the chances that the lawsuit will be successful are really good," Tedesco said. "The government has absolutely no interest whatsoever — let alone a compelling one — to force ordained ministers to [marry gays]. It certainly isn't a good enough reason that a local government decided to adopt an ordinance."

As far as a timeline for the case goes, Tedesco said it depends on how quickly a hearing on the matter is scheduled.

The Knapp family has faced criticism from some who say that language on the chapel's website has profoundly changed in recent months.

While the website said earlier this year that ministers would marry people "using a traditional or civil ceremony," blogger Jeremy Hooper claims the language changed. It now reads that Hitching Post will, "marry you using a traditional, religious ceremony."

The Alliance Defending Freedom dismissed criticisms of the language change on its website, writing:

"The Revs. Knapp have not changed their religious beliefs and how they perform marriage ceremonies at The Hitching Post. They have always only performed marriages between one man and one woman. The civil marriages the pastors perform are consistent with their religious beliefs and include the same biblical principles as their traditional ceremonies.  They also perform marriage ceremonies for persons of non-Christian faiths because the Bible teaches that marriage is a common grace and creational gift bestowed by God for the benefit of all human society.  What has changed is what is legally called marriage in Idaho. What has changed is that the city recently passed a law that threatens the pastors with jail time and fines if they don’t violate their religious beliefs and perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. They have changed their website to clarify the types of services they provide in light of the changes in Idaho law. It is not unusual to offer needed clarification in changing circumstances. The criticism regarding changes made to The Hitching Post website are a manufactured distraction meant to divert attention from the very real threats to the pastors’ constitutionally-protected freedom."

Find out more about the case here.

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Front page image via Shutterstock.com

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