There is an interesting case out of Idaho that could be a critical showdown between anti-discrimination laws and freedom of exercise of religion. At the heart of the controversy are two Christian ministers, Donald and Evelyn Knapp, who own a Coeur d’Alene wedding chapel. They have been told that they must either perform same-sex weddings or face a $1000 fine. It raises a legitimate claim of the encroachment of state laws into areas of faith — a question that has been previously raised in less direct ways involving bakeries, photographers and other businesses that has refused for religious reasons to service same-sex marriages. We have previously discussed the difficulty in drawing lines under the First Amendment. If this business is protected, then why is not a bakery of religious individuals? Conversely, if this business is not protected, how about all of the religions that accept payments for religious services?
The case centers on the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, which is registered with the state as a “religious corporation” limited to performing “one-man-one-woman marriages as defined by the Holy Bible.” However, unlike most churches, this is registered as a for-profit business. It is not unique in such a status, but that distinction could prove determinative in the case.
The city has an ordinance passed last year that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in matters of housing, employment and public accommodation. As a for-profit business, the ordinance does not treat the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel any different from a car wash.
Of course, it is different in the character of its work. The controversy however has played out in a variety of different contexts. This is an issue that we previously discussed when Harvard banned men from workout areas to satisfy the demands of Muslim women as well as other accommodations at other universities. Conversely, cities have banned the boy scouts because they exclude gay scout leaders and were thus discriminatory organizations. We have also seen private businesses who have been forced not to discriminate against homosexuals such a bakeries, florists, and photographers. I have previously written on the growing collision of free exercise of religion and anti-discrimination laws. Where does one draw the line where a florist cannot bar a homosexual but a grocery can bar males? The inherent conflicts in these cases leaves us without a single cognizable rule.
That is why this case could be so important. While I have long supported gay rights and same-sex marriage, I am sympathetic with the Knapps. I have great concern over the state telling a religious business to violate the core of its religious values. One possible distinction would be to require a non-for-profit status, but that distinction does not answer all of these questions. Churches and synagogues often receive payment for marriages even though they are non-for-profit. Moreover, most not-for-profit corporations are non-religious. The distinction avoids the key question: do people (and corporations) have a right to follow core religious principles. The recent ruling in Hobby Lobby would seem to support such a claim.
The case in Idaho is the perfect microcosm of the various national issues swirling around same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage has long been illegal in Idaho so this issue had not arisen for the couple. However, last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an order on May 13 allowing same-sex marriages to commence in Idaho on Oct. 15. It was just two days later that the couple received a call asking for a same-sex wedding ceremony. When they declined, they were contacted by the city.
I believe that the couple has a strong argument under the First Amendment as well as Idaho’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Regardless of one’s view of the merits, however, this could be a defining moment for constitutional law.