The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho announced Thursday that it will not wage a legal challenge against Hitching Post Wedding Chapel, the for-profit business in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, that could be in violation of a local non-discrimination ordinance for its ardent refusal to marry same-sex couples.
Leo Morales, the ACLU's interim executive director, said that chapel owners Donald and Evelyn Knapp — both ordained ministers — recently changed their business status to become a "religious corporation," according to the Associated Press.
Morales made these comments during a press conference Thursday, noting that the new designation would likely exempt the family from performing gay marriage ceremonies so long as Hitching Post — which will remain a for-profit business — exclusively performs faith-based weddings.
"As long as a entity is conducting a religious activity, that is accepted. That should be accepted under the nondiscrimination law in Coeur d’Alene," Morales told TheBlaze Friday. "Once that entity begins to offer other services that are secular services, we believe it then falls under the category of public accommodation."
A screen shot from the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel website
But Jeremy Tedesco, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative legal firm representing the Knapps, told TheBlaze Friday that there is no official "religious corporation" status outside of the nonprofit realm, per se, and that his clients had merely changed their status from an S-corporation to a Limited Liability Corporation.
Tedesco believes that the ACLU is in "major damage control" over the fact that a non-discrimination ordinance that they have defended has been used to limit the speech of ordained ministers.
"The ACLU is terrified … that the ordinance has been used exactly the way we said it would be," Tedesco said. "The ACLU wants nothing to do with the worst possible set of facts that could result from one of these ordinances."
He added that it is "patently obvious that they are running scared from this case."
If the ACLU is correct in its contention that the Knapps are protected under their current business status, then Tedesco said he believes new language must be added to the ordinance to protect the Hitching Post and other businesses like it.
"This situation is very nuanced, it’s also very new for us and for most of the attorneys involved in the case," Morales admitted during the press conference.
As noted, the civil rights leader added that the ACLU's decision would be revisited if the Knapps begin providing other services outside of simply offering religious matrimonies. For instance, if the couple starts selling wedding cakes or flowers or holding secular ceremonies, legal action could be taken.
As TheBlaze previously reported, the Knapps have been locked in a legal battle with Coeur d’Alene officials over their refusal to marry gay couples, with the city responding to their recently filed federal lawsuit Monday by asking that them reconsider taking legal action.
Tedesco 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.
In the letter addressed to the Alliance Defending Freedom, Gridley explained this week 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.”
It's unclear whether Gridley would agree with the ACLU's understanding of the ordinance as it pertains to a religious corporation.
The Alliance Defending Freedom had previously charged that the Knapps could “face months in jail and/or thousands of dollars in fines" if they continued their refusal to marry gay couples.
An email to Gridley seeking comment has not yet been returned to TheBlaze.
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This story has been updated with quotes from the ACLU and the Alliance Defending Freedom.