Legal hitch at Hitching Post

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City officials in Coeur d'Alene say they have not received any formal complaints that the Hitching Post wedding chapel has violated the city's anti-discrimination ordinance by refusing to solemnize same-sex marriages.

A lawsuit filed in federal court Friday on behalf of Don and Lynn Knapp, ordained ministers and owners of the Hitching Post, claims the couple's constitutional rights to religious freedom are being violated by the city, through the city's anti-discrimination ordinance, because it compels them to officiate over gay marriages.

The law, adopted in 2013, prohibits sexual orientation and gender identity to be used as a basis for discrimination in housing, employment and other public accommodations.

News of the lawsuit sparked national headlines over the weekend, primarily from conservative media, claiming that the city is threatening to arrest the Knapps.

"We have never threatened to jail them, or take legal action of any kind," said city spokesman Keith Erickson.

But if a complaint is received, Erickson said it would be handled the way all such complaints are.

"The city will look into it and take whatever action is necessary," he said.

In response to the lawsuit, the city released a copy of a letter City Attorney Mike Gridley sent Monday to David A. Cortman, senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based, conservative Christian "legal ministry." The ADF is representing the Knapps in their lawsuit.

In the letter, Gridley confirmed the details of a telephone conversation he says he had Monday with Cortman.

Gridley wrote that his office has responded in the past to questions from the Knapps about their business - registered as a for-profit limited liability company with the Idaho Secretary of State's office. He admitted that the Knapps were told by his office that if a complaint was filed against them for refusing to provide service to gay individuals seeking to marry, they would likely be in violation of the city's ordinance, based on their corporate status.

Violation of the anti-discrimination law is a misdemeanor with a fine as steep as $1,000, and as long as six months in jail.

Gridley also noted that on Oct. 6, the Knapps filed an LLC operating agreement with the state indicating that the Hitching Post is a "religious organization." He told the Knapps' attorney in the letter that if the Knapps are "truly operating a not-for-profit religious corporation" they would be specifically exempted from the city ordinance.

"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," Gridley wrote.

Gridley wrote that the city will not prosecute legitimate nonprofit religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, or societies or other exempt organizations or anyone else as a result of their lawful exercise of their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and religion.

In addition to exempting those groups, Gridley wrote that the anti-discrimination ordinance states that it "shall be construed and applied in a manner consistent with First Amendment jurisprudence regarding the freedom of speech and exercise of religion."

When contacted by The Press for comment, Don Knapp said the Hitching Post is not operating as a not-for-profit religious corporation. He also said he does not know ADF Attorney David Cortman.

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