Fact Check

Idaho Ministers Forced to Officiate Gay Weddings

Rumor: Two Idaho pastors were threatened with arrest for refusing to perform gay weddings.

Published Oct 20, 2014

Claim:   Two Idaho pastors were threatened with legal action and arrests for refusing to perform gay weddings.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, October 2014]

Facebook has a Fox News Radio article about a couple, Don and Evelyn Knapp, that own an Idaho wedding chapel and are supposedly facing arrest if they don't perform same sex marriages.

Is this for real? Are officials in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, forcing Christian ministers to perform same sex marriage against their religious beliefs? What has happened to "separation of church and state"? Does it now only apply to churches preaching against orruption in government? Has the First Amendment been rewritten so that the state can now dictate religious beliefs and practices?


Origins:   On 18 October 2014, the

Christian legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) announced in a press release that they were filing a federal lawsuit and a motion for a temporary restraining order on behalf of pastors Donald and Evelyn Knapp of Couer d'Alene, Idaho. According to the announcement, the move was to prevent the city of Couer d'Alene from "forcing [the] two ordained Christian ministers to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples."

The ADF's release stated that Donald and Evelyn Knapp faced the threat of jail or exorbitant fines if they refused to officiate gay weddings:

City officials told Donald Knapp that he and his wife Evelyn, both ordained ministers who run Hitching Post Wedding Chapel, are required to perform such ceremonies or face months in jail and/or thousands of dollars in fines. The city claims its "non-discrimination" ordinance requires the Knapps to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies now that the courts have overridden Idaho's voter-approved constitutional amendment that affirmed marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

"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. "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 — and it's happened this quickly. 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."

On 14 October 2014, three days prior to the ADF's press release, the Idaho state government had announced that they would no longer oppose the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, prompting a number of same-sex couples to obtain licenses and marry in the days immediately following the state's announcement:

The marriages came a day after Gov. Butch Otter and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Republicans who had fought to maintain the state's ban on gay marriage, ended their opposition to a ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that ordered the state to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

The localized battle in Idaho received national attention on 20 October 2014, when Fox News opinion columnist Todd Starnes published an article about the ADF's lawsuit on behalf of the Knapps:

According to the lawsuit, the wedding chapel is registered with the state as a "religious corporation" limited to performing "one-man-one-woman marriages as defined by the Holy Bible."

But the chapel is also registered as a for-profit business — not as a church or place of worship — and city officials said that means the owners must comply with a local nondiscrimination ordinance.

A Couer d’Alene deputy city attorney reportedly said on local television that for-profit wedding chapels could not legally turn away a gay couple without risking a misdemeanor citation, and that the Hitching Post "would probably be considered a place of public accommodation that would be subject to the ordinance." The Knapps maintain that the City Attorney’s office made the same assertion in telephone conversations with them, while the city claims they never threatened to take any legal action against the couple.

The difference between churches and businesses is at the heart of the Couer d'Alene ministers' legal dispute, and one eagle-eyed blogger made a compelling discovery in respect to that delineation, noticing that a cached version of the
Knapp's "Hitching Post" web site described their services as follows:

The Hitching Post specializes in small, short, intimate, and private weddings for couples who desire a traditional Christian wedding ceremony. 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.

At some point in time around Idaho's issuance of same-sex wedding licenses on 15 October and the ADF's press release on 18 October 2014, the Knapps altered the copy on their web site. As of 20 October 2014, the "About" description on the site no longer included references to the civil and non-denominational services that it had displayed just a few days earlier:

The Hitching Post specializes in small, short, intimate, and private weddings for couples who desire a traditional Christian wedding ceremony. We believe that every wedding is special and realize how important this day is to those who walk through our doors.

The ordinance under which the Knapps maintained their religious freedoms were restricted [PDF], issued by the city of Couer d'Alene on 4 June 2014, exempted "religious corporations" from its provisions:

Notwithstanding any other provision herein, nothing in this Chapter is intended to alter or abridge other rights, protections, or privileges secured under state and/or federal law. This ordinance shall be construed and applied in a manner consistent with First Amendment jurisprudence regarding the freedom of speech and exercise of religion.

This chapter does not apply to: Religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, or societies.

Although the City of Couer d'Alene agreed that the Hitching Post was exempted from the anti-discrimination ordinance, the Knapps nonetheless forged ahead with a lawsuit against the jurisdiction. In March 2015, Couer d'Alene television station KXLY reported that the Knapps were maintaining that the city ordinance had cost them money, despite the fact that they had closed their business' doors by choice:

The Hitching Post wants the city to pay them for wages lost during the time they thought the city was going to force them to perform weddings. The Hitching Post made their stance on gay marriage very clear last year when the initial ban was overturned. Last May they said they would close their doors if they were forced to perform same sex marriages.

The Hitching Post now wants the city to pay them for the days the chapel shut down even though they did so by choice. The business also says it lost customers and received hate mail because of media attention.

However, the city said they have made it clear the Hitching Post is classified as a "religious organization" and is exempt, whether it's for profit or not. City spokesperson Keith Erickson wrote in a statement that the city "never threatened any legal action against the Hitching Post, nor does it intend to do so."

A 2 April 2015 news article added that the chapel closures cited by the Knapps in their suit against the city included days on which same-sex marriage had not yet been legalized in Idaho:

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."

According to the Hitching Post owners' complaint, the Knapps closed their business due to "a constant state of fear that they would be arrested and prosecuted if they declined to perform a same-sex ceremony." However, the article referenced above also reiterated a city spokesman's statement that officials "have never threatened to jail them, or take legal action of any kind" against them.

Last updated:   7 July 2015


    Associated Press.   "Idaho: Gay Marriages Begin."

    New York Times.   15 October 2014.

    Starnes, Todd.   "City Threatens to Arrest Ministers Who Refuse to Perform Same-Sex Weddings."

    Fox News.   20 October 2014.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.