Hitching Post suit at a standstill

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COEUR d'ALENE - Both sides are standing their ground as a lawsuit filed against the city of Coeur d'Alene by the Hitching Post continues through U.S. District Court.

Lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian rights legal advocacy organization, filed the suit in October on behalf of Hitching Post owners Don and Evelyn Knapp. The civil rights lawsuit claims the Knapps are being forced to violate their religious beliefs and perform same-sex marriages because of the city's anti-discrimination ordinance.

"The whole problem is that prior to the case being filed, the city was saying the distinction between covered and not-covered was whether or not a business was a nonprofit or for-profit. But after we filed, they changed that statement," Jeremy Tedesco, ADF senior legal counsel, said. "This ordinance has criminal penalties and jail time if you violate it and because of that, the city needs to have clear guidelines for people like the Knapps who are trying to figure out if they're exempt."

On March 16, ADF filed an amended version of the original lawsuit in response to a motion made by the city to have the suit dismissed. The amended complaint states that ADF is seeking "compensatory and nominal damages for the violation" of the Knapps' "constitutional rights, for lost income, and for other losses."

Tedesco told The Press Wednesday that it is impossible to say the exact amount of compensation they were seeking, because that figure will be determined by a fact-finder with the court.

"It's at least enough money to recompense the Knapps for the days they were closed because of threats from the city," Tedesco added.

For a week in October, the Knapps closed the wedding chapel because, according to the complaint, they were in "a constant state of fear that they would be arrested and prosecuted if they declined to perform a same-sex ceremony." The amended complaint adds that beginning Oct. 23, three separate individuals called the Hitching Post about same-sex weddings, and that the chapel has had 15 such inquiries since the Knapps purchased it in 1989.

"The Knapps are thus under a constant, coercive, and substantial threat to violate their religious beliefs due to the risk that they will incur the penalties of jail time and criminal fines for declining to speak a message and perform a wedding service that contradicts their religious beliefs and ministerial vows," the amended complaint states.

City officials said, at the time, that they had not received any formal complaints that the Knapps had violated the city's anti-discrimination ordinance.

Keith Erickson, a city spokesman, told The Press on Oct. 20 that the city never took action against the Knapps: "We have never threatened to jail them, or take legal action of any kind."

Attorneys representing the city of Coeur d'Alene filed a second request to have the lawsuit dismissed on March 30, in response to the amended complaint. The motion claims that the Knapps have failed to establish that "they have suffered actual injury" or "show a genuine threat of imminent prosecution," which is required to have the necessary legal standing to move forward with a civil suit.

Boise-based attorney Kirtlan Naylor wrote in the city's legal response, that while the Knapps claim they lost income when they closed the Hitching Post because they would be in violation of the ordinance, they never allege "that they had any weddings scheduled on those dates, or that anybody came to their business requesting a wedding on those dates."

"More so, same-sex marriage was not legal in Idaho on Oct. 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 14," the motion states. "Additionally, on Oct. 15, 2014, when same-sex marriage became legal, Plaintiffs would not have been subject to the ordinance because they were exempt. Therefore, they were under no legitimate threat of prosecution which would require them to close their business on that date."

Tedesco said both sides are still open to continuing settlement discussions in the case, "but since we haven't been able to come to terms, we are going to see how the litigation proceeds."

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