Hitch in their beliefs

Equal rights laws spark lawsuit against city

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Don, right, and Lynn Knapp pose in front of their business, the Hitching Post wedding chapel in Coeur d'Alene.

The recent wave of federal court rulings knocking down gay marriage bans in Idaho and beyond has left some opponents of same-sex unions with increasing concerns about their own rights under the law.

For Don and Lynn Knapp, owners of the Hitching Post, a popular Coeur d'Alene wedding business, the new federal ruling - combined with the city of Coeur d'Alene's anti-discrimination ordinance - created a tipping point that prompted them to take action.

Attorneys for the Knapps - who are ordained ministers - filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday claiming the city of Coeur d'Alene is violating their constitutional right to religious freedom by forcing them to solemnize same-sex unions.

Don Knapp would not comment on the case, but said the suit has been filed on he and his wife's behalf by the Alliance Defending Freedom.

"The Knapps cannot perform same-sex marriage ceremonies and publicly bless same-sex marriages without violating their personal religious belief that marriage is a sacred union established by God between man and woman," states the court document.

The lawsuit also says the Knapps received a call from someone requesting a same-sex ceremony on Friday, and because the Knapps declined, they are subject to up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.

The Knapps' attorneys did not return phone messages left by The Press, but Saturday the ADF released information about the case on a public relations web page.

"The government should not force ordained ministers to act contrary to their faith under threat of jail time and criminal fines," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco, in a statement posted on www.adfmedia.org. " ... The city is on seriously flawed legal ground, and our lawsuit intends to ensure that this couple's freedom to adhere to their own faith as pastors is protected just as the First Amendment intended."

The city of Coeur d'Alene's anti-discrimination ordinance was adopted in 2013. It forbids discrimination in housing, employment and other public accommodations based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

Religious entities are exempt, but the Hitching Post does not fall into that category.

While the Hitching Post is billed as a "chapel," it is not a church. "Hitching Post Weddings" is registered with the Idaho Secretary of State's office as a business, a limited liability company.

The cost for a wedding at the business - which is located across the street from the Kootenai County courthouse - ranges from $80 to $102.

Don Knapp told The Press in August that he and Lynn were considering selling the business if same-sex marriage was legalized in Idaho by the high court. As of Saturday, they were still doing business.

Knapp said at the time that they were seeking other remedies that would allow the Hitching Post to continue operating.

ADF attorneys also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order asking the court to prohibit the city from enforcing the anti-discrimination ordinance.

City Attorney Mike Gridley told The Press on Friday - before the lawsuit was filed - that he was unaware of any recent complaints that the anti-discrimination ordinance had been violated.

City officials had not yet seen the Knapps' lawsuit Friday afternoon.

Ron Vieselmeyer - a Coeur d'Alene marriage and family counselor, ordained minister and former North Idaho College trustee - said other church pastors are concerned the new laws will affect them similarly, and have shared their fears with him.

"These ordinances and laws are being passed and there are concerns that they might change the way they do business and operate within the confines of their own church," said Vieselmeyer, who sits on the board of Reach America, a Coeur d'Alene-based Christian youth leadership group.

Vieselmeyer said that although he has not heard of any instances in North Idaho in which a same-sex couple has requested a local church to perform a wedding ceremony, he believes churches might be standing face-to-face with the new laws in the immediate future.

A conflict is created when society does things from a legal perspective that is outside of Christianity, he said.

Vieselmeyer referenced recent developments in Houston, Texas, where city attorneys have issued subpoenas for information from five pastors who publicly opposed an ordinance banning discrimination against gay and transgender residents.

"If that kind of thing is going on in Texas, it could happen here very soon," Vieselmeyer said.

The original request from Houston city attorneys was for sermons, but that has been modified to a request for speeches or presentations related to a petition drive to repeal the city's equal rights ordinance which was passed in May. Christian activists sued after city officials ruled they didn't collect enough petition signatures to place a repeal referendum on the ballot.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is gay, says the subpoenaed information is needed so the city can prepare for trial on the lawsuit.

The same legal group representing the Knapps in Coeur d'Alene, is working on behalf of the Houston pastors.

The ADF - a national network of attorneys and organizations - describes itself as "an alliance-building legal ministry" that advocates for religious freedom. The ADF claims a role in 38 U.S. Supreme Court victories.

Coeur d'Alene lawyer Virginia McNulty Robinson - one of ADF's nearly 2,500 allied private attorneys - is serving as local counsel on behalf of the Knapps.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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