Conservative media outlets are promoting the cause of an Idaho wedding chapel suing so it can deny services to gay couples, inaccurately portraying the chapel as a religious institution rather than as a for-profit business.
On October 17, the anti-gay legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a lawsuit against the city of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on behalf of the chapel, which is called the Hitching Post. The lawsuit alleges that the city's non-discrimination ordinance would force owners Donald and Evelyn Knapp to violate their religious beliefs by performing same-sex weddings, despite the fact they had previously offered to officiate non-religious ceremonies without complaint.
ADF is using the lawsuit to revive the right-wing horror story that churches and clergy members will be forced to perform gay weddings. ADF senior legal counsel Jeremy Tedesco stated in a news release, “Many have denied that pastors would ever be forced to perform ceremonies that are completely at odds with their faith, but that's what is happening here.”
Right-wing media, led by Fox News reporter Todd Starnes, have echoed ADF's spin. Starnes was the first to misrepresent the case, writing:
What in heaven's name is happening to our country, folks? I was under the assumption that churches and pastors would not be impacted by same-sex marriage.
But conservative reports about the Hitching Post lawsuit have omitted important facts about the case:
The Hitching Post Is Not A Church
The Hitching Post is a for-profit business, subject to the city's ordinance barring discrimination in public accommodations. The business offers wedding packages ranging from $80 to over $100 dollars.
The Hitching Post Isn't Just A Wedding Ministry
The Hitching Post offers wedding packages that include the use of a decorated chapel area, music, wedding photos, and the filing of a marriage license with the county recorder. In refusing to serve same-sex couples, the Hitching Post denied those couples goods and services, including the filing of a civil marriage license. Courts in other states have already ruled that the denial of wedding-related goods and services violates local non-discrimination laws.
The Hitching Post Had Previously Offered Secular Wedding Services
Until as recently as October 9, the Hitching Post offered its wedding services to perform civil and non-Christian weddings. According to the Hitching Post's website:
We also perform wedding ceremonies of other faiths as well as civil weddings. We believe that every wedding is special and realize how important this day is to those who walk through our doors.
The Hitching Post Quietly Rebranded Itself As A Christian Corporation Immediately Prior To Filing Its Lawsuit
With the help of ADF, the Hitching Post re-filed its business certificatelast month in order to support its claim that it's an explicitly religious corporation. The company also scrubbed its website of all references to “civil weddings” or “ceremonies of other faiths,” replacing it with Christian-specific language that excludes other kinds of wedding ceremonies. City attorney Mike Gridley told the Coeur d'Alene press that the city was unaware the Hitching Post had become a religious corporation:
“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.
The City Has Not Threatened Or Taken Legal Action Against The Hitching Post
As the Coeur d'Alene press reported, the city has not taken any legal action against the Hitching Post:
“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 Hitching Post Is Exempt From The Law If It Operates As A Religious Nonprofit
Gridley has stated that the Hitching Post would be exempt from the city's non-discrimination law if it began operating as a religious nonprofit:
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.
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.
Conservative media outlets have parroted ADF's framing of the lawsuit, misleading their audiences into believing that churches may now be forced to perform same-sex weddings. Even conservative commentator Walter Olson criticized ADF -- and its media allies -- for "hiding the ball." The question is whether mainstream media outlets will challenge opponents of LGBT equality when they cite the Hitching Post's lawsuit as an example of marriage equality's threat to religious liberty.