SAN DIEGO, November 15, 2014 —The latest chapter in a clash between the rights of same-sex couples and religious freedom involves an Idaho wedding chapel where two ordained Christian ministers were given the choice to either officiate same-sex weddings or face legal consequences which could include jail and a fine as high as $1,000 dollars.
When husband and wife ministers, Donald and Evelyn Knapp, first began their work at Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, they probably never dreamed they would need to someday call upon the services of Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization which specializes in religious and First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, the Knapps are being challenged by the city for having the audacity to stick to their religious convictions and limit marriage ceremonies to the union of a man and a woman.
According to ADF attorney, Jeremy Tedesco, “Right now they are at risk of being prosecuted…The threat of enforcement is more than just credible…The Knapps are in fear that if they exercise their First Amendment rights, they will be cited, prosecuted, and sent to jail.”
Technically, this ministry involves a wedding chapel and not a church. Although listed as a “religious corporation” it is not a non-profit organization. This opens a window for prosecution that churches (supposedly) are immune from.
According to city officials, the Knapps are in violation of a local nondiscrimination ordinance passed a year ago which prohibits discrimination due to sexual orientation. This law is not only about housing or employment but public accommodation as well.
City Attorney Warren Wilson said to The Spokesman-Review in May, “I would think that the Hitching Post would probably be considered a place of public accommodation that would be subject to the ordinance.”
His words to station KXLY were even stronger. He said a wedding chapel that won’t perform ceremonies for same-sex couples was violating the law, at least in theory, and added, “You’re looking at a potential misdemeanor citation.”
For a while, such consequences were only a possibility because at the time Coeur d’Alene’s new ordinance passed, same-sex marriage was not legal in the state.
That all changed when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided to allow same sex marriage in Idaho.
Two days later, Hitching Post Wedding Chapel got a phone call from a man who wanted to know if they would perform a same-sex wedding. The Knapps turned down his request. Now, out of fear that the city might prosecute them, they are filing a lawsuit to prevent such action.
ADF attorney Tedesco says.“The government should not force ordained ministers to act contrary to their faith under threat of jail time and criminal fines…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.”
In the ongoing debate about legal same-sex marriage, many conservatives have warned that it will not stop with allowing homosexual marriage and will go on to infringe upon the rights of Christians and others with traditional values. They have been laughed at and accused of spreading unwarranted fear. After all, this was merely about separation between church and state. Let the state perform the kinds of marriages it wants. Meanwhile, in church, Christians will still be free to perform or refrain from performing marriages according to their own beliefs.
The argument makes sense on a certain level, but only if we assume that being constitutional is the only true objective.
In point of fact, the phrase “separation between church and state” is not found in our Constitution. Instead it reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise there-of.”
When a pastor is told that he has to perform a same-sex wedding, does that not mean that the free expression of his religion is being prohibited?
It’s true that Thomas Jefferson later talked about a “wall of separation” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. But even if we want to use that phrase, a question is still begging to be asked: How come recent trends show that this “separation” is not cutting both ways?
The Idaho chapel is not an isolated incident.
The New Mexico Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex couples have a right to any wedding photographer they choose, even a photographer who objects for religious reasons. Elane Photography, a small home-based company run by Elaine Huguenin with her husband and co-owner Jonathan, both Christians, were ordered to comply to the ruling.
Long before the New Mexico situation, a New Jersey judge ruled against a Christian retreat house that had declined permission for a same-sex civil union ceremony to be conducted on its property. The judge said the Constitution allows “some intrusion into religious freedom to balance other important societal goals.”
Those are chilling words. At the time of that ruling, New Jersey did not even allow gay marriage. The judge still ruled on behalf of a civil union.
It isn’t always judges. Mayors like to throw their weight around too. Chick-fil-A CEO, Dan Cathy merely shared his opinion about same-sex marriage in an interview. This resulted in a letter from the late Thomas Menino who was Boston’s mayor at the time.
“There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it.We are indeed full of pride for our support of same sex marriage and our work to expand freedom to all people. We are proud that our state and our city have led the way for the country on equal marriage rights.”
Public protest came swiftly to the defense of Chick-fil-A but such words from a city official say something about the political climate we are living in.
Some will immediately respond by making a distinction between churches and businesses. Chick-fil-A is a fast food restaurant. Elane Photography is also a business. Even Hitching Post Wedding Chapel, while run by a husband and wife minister team, is not an honest-to-goodness church, neither is it a non-profit organization.
These arguments based upon organizational structure are a bit weakened by another recent news story. City officials in Houston, Texas ordered five Christian pastors to turn over any sermons in which they mentioned the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), the mayor, gender issues, or homosexuality. Some bad press and public outcry forced the city to back off, but keep in mind that these were actual churches, rather than mere businesses run by Christians.
Even so, such classifications should not matter. Lawyers and activists may love these kinds of distinctions, but the First Amendment says nothing about organizational paradigms or non-profit status.
Naturally our forefathers did not intend for personal freedom to extend to the point where one can physically harm another human being in the name of religion. For this reason, laws which forbid restaurants or motels from refusing service on the basis of race or sexual preference are appropriate. Everybody needs a place to sleep. Everybody needs to eat.
Keep in mind that Chick-fil-A wasn’t refusing service to anybody. The CEO was simply stating a personal opinion. He may have done so publicly, but the right to freedom of speech is guaranteed in the same amendment that provides religious freedom.
And the urgency of finding lodging for the night cannot be compared to a same-sex couple who has all the time in the world to find liberal pastors who would be only too happy to perform their wedding. There are countless gay churches or liberal churches willing to marry any kind of couple.
Photographers are not in short supply either. Many secular photographers do not care what they photograph, so long as they are being paid.
Supposing an Evangelical Christian couple sought out an openly gay pastor, asking him to perform a traditional wedding complete with traditional words about marriage being ordained by God as an ordinance between men and women? Should he be expected to affirm such beliefs if he does not share them?
Dedicated liberals tend to avoid those kinds of comparisons. Instead, they are quick to turn the gay plight into an allegory with previous struggles in the history of our country.
By couching the debate under headings such as “equality” or ”civil rights” they often forget how many African-Americans and Latinos resist the alleged parallel. 70 percent of California’s African-American voters cast their ballots in favor of Proposition 8 which amended the California constitution by defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. A little more than half of California’s Hispanic voters joined them according to National Election Pool, 2008.
Rev. William Owens (head of the Coalition of African-American Pastors) is himself a civil rights activist. In 2003 he spoke to CNS News about the comparison between gay rights and the African-American plight:
“Every morning I wake up, I look in the mirror, and I see a black man, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to change the color of my skin…They are not suffering what we suffered, and I sympathize with people who face discrimination. Every person should be treated with dignity and respect, but what they’re going through does not compare to what we went through.”
Owens went on to say that changing the definition of marriage will be “devastating to all of our families.”
But apparently, the true militant gay agenda is less about equal protection under the law and more about someday making it against the law to even express the opinion that homosexuality is wrong. This goal has been openly, shamelessly stated.
As far back as 1987 the plan was laid out. Jeff Levi, in a speech for the National Press Club in Washington said,“We are no longer seeking just a right to privacy and a protection from wrong. We also have a right — as heterosexual Americans already have — to see government and society affirm our lives”
How do you insist that an entire society affirm something without challenging freedom of speech? What about those who cannot in good conscience affirm a homosexual lifestyle for religious or other reasons? When one group of people demands affirmation, how does the First Amendment apply to everybody?
In fairness, militant gay activists do not speak for all homosexuals. Many gay people simply wish to be left alone. Others, such as openly lesbian radio talk show host Tammy Bruce, bravely challenge the militant agenda by writing books like The New Thought Police.
Despite these cooler heads, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, or at least the sympathy of certain courts and politicians. Face facts. There is nothing about today’s political climate which suggests that America is not headed down the same Orwellian road where other countries have long since embarked and completed their journey.
In Ireland, the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 forbids “incitement to hatred on account of race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation.” This law includes public speaking, broadcasts and written materials. One would think that a “hateful motive” would be in the eye of the beholder but not in Ireland. Violation of this law includes “insulting” and that actual word is used in the language of the law. Similar laws exist in England, Norway and Sweden.
If America’s current controversy was only about the rights of same-sex couples to get married, many who disagree with that lifestyle could still live with it. They may not like the situation, but they could live with it. Unfortunately, we are starting to move far beyond the mere question of wedding ceremonies.
Freedom of religion and freedom of speech should be a concern to every American citizen, be they gay or straight, liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist. If you don’t fight for the opinions you disagree with, it may just be your own opinion that is outlawed next time.
This is Bob Siegel, making the obvious, obvious.
Bob Siegel is a weekend radio talk show host on KCBQ and columnist. Details of his show can be found at www.bobsiegel.net.
Fox News and the Spokesman Review contributed to the hard news portions of this article
NOTE: An earlier version of this article had an error due to a misreading of the unusual wording in some news sources. We apologize for the error. It has been corrected.