To right-wing extremists, it seemed to be just the story they were waiting for to validate their screeds against LGBT rights. But was it a true tale, or sweet little lies and distortions as tasty as (not-for-lesbians) wedding cake?
The story starts with an Idaho Christian couple compelled — forced! — to wed same-sex couples in their chapel. Exactly the scenario for which prominent opponents of marriage equality have been bracing themselves (and their followers) as more states and cities legalize same-sex marriage and adopt LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policies.
With apparent relish, the right wing has spread the tale of the Hitching Post and raised the specter of persecuted ministers, with conservative pundits such as Mike Huckabee and Todd Starnes weighing in. The Idaho chapel’s owners resolved that they would shut down before they’d give in to the city of Coeur d’Alene’s supposed mandate that they let same-sex couples get hitched at the Hitching Post or face fines or jail time.
The hitch for the Hitching Post controversy? There was no such marriage equality mandate, or threat of jail time, fines, or any sort of legal action if the Hitching Post continued to refuse service to same-sex couples.
The New Civil Rights Movement, LGBT blogger and activist Jeremy Hooper, and Media Matters have rounded up several pieces of the story that don’t fit with right-wing narrative. (That narrative included at least one report whose headline went so far as to say the couple had already been arrested, though the story itself steered clear of that blatant falsehood).
Here’s a chronological overview of what’s happened so far:
• June 2013: The Coeur d’Alene City Council approves a controversial LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance.
• May 2014: With the future of same-sex marriage in the state uncertain, television station KXLY interviews Donald Knapp, who owns the chapel with his wife, Evelyn Knapp.
“I think the Bible’s pretty clear that homosexuality is not [God's] way, and therefore I cannot unite people in a way that I believe would conflict with what the Bible teaches,” says Donald Knapp, who vows to close or sell the business if faced with a legal mandate to wed same-sex couples.
The video also includes a city representative; according to the suit later filed by the Knapps, it is Deputy City Attorney Warren Wilson, who indicates that a for-profit chapel refusing to wed a same-sex couple would run afoul of the ordinance (assuming same-sex marriage were to become legal in the state).
During the same month, Wilson also reportedly tells The Spokesman-Review of nearbly Spokane, Wash., that the ordinance would probably apply to the Hitching Post.
• September 12: The Hitching Post becomes a limited liability company.
• October 6: Hitching Post owners sign documents indicating their intention to operate as a religious organization. In their documentation, they describe the business as “a religious corporation owned solely by ordained ministers of the Christian religion who operate this entity as an extension of their sincerely held religious beliefs and in accordance with their vows taken as Christian ministers. The purpose of the Hitching Post is to help people create, celebrate, and build lifetime, monogamous, one-man-one-woman marriages as defined by the Holy Bible.”
• October (sometime after October 9): Changes to the Hitching Post’s website position it more as a religious organization as less as a for-profit business than did the previous text; Good as You has screen shots of the changes. Previously, the website specifically referred to offering “a traditional or civil ceremony” and to offering ceremonies for people of other faiths in addition to traditional Christian weddings. The newer website copy stresses only “traditional,” “religious” and “Christian” ceremonies.
• October 17: The Knapps file suit claiming that the city was proffering a “Hobson’s choice” whereby “the Knapps can either violate their religious convictions and ministerial vows by performing same-sex wedding ceremonies or follow their religious convictions and vows by declining to perform same-sex ceremonies and face up to 180 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. … For the past several months, the City has privately and publicly threatened to apply Ordinance §9.56 to the Knapps if same-sex marriage became legal in Idaho and the Knapps declined to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony at The Hitching Post Wedding Chapel.”
The lawsuit makes reference to the Knapps refusing on October 17 (the same day the suit was filed) to perform a same-sex wedding. This is ostensibly how the couple ran afoul of the nondiscrimination ordinance and thus the reason that they are, the suit says, in urgent need of a restraining order against the city. The suit also asks the court to find the nondiscrimination ordinance unconstitutional.
• October 21: The Coeur d’Alene Press reports that the city has received no formal complaints about same-sex couples being turned away from the Hitching Post. Even if the Knapps did speak to someone who wanted services, as posited in the lawsuit, that person did not file a complaint with the city, which indicated it was not threatening the Hitching Post with “legal action of any kind,” city spokesman Keith Erickson tells the paper. The city attorney, Mike Gridley, is also quoted, sounding bemused that the Knapps “never disclosed that they have recently become a religious corporation.” The story reports that the city released a letter from Gridley in which he said that legitimate religious entities would be exempt from the nondiscrimination clause.
However, the story also indicates that Don Knapp “said the Hitching Post is not operating as a not-for-profit religious corporation.” Knapp also said he didn’t know a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, the anti-LGBT group handling the lawsuit — although the Knapps are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. (David Cortman, the attorney Knapp says he doesn’t know, is named at the top of the lawsuit).
• October 22: The Coeur d'Alene Press reports that Gov. Butch Otter plans to ask the Ninth Circuit for a review of its ruling on same-sex marriage with a larger panel of judges, citing the perceived persecution of the Hitching Post’s owners as a way that “redefining” marriage was causing harm. Nevertheless, the city staff continues to posit that it’s all been much ado about nothing — the city has reportedly still received no complaints alleging that the Knapps had broken any laws. The story notes that “The Hitching Post claims to be a ‘religious corporation’ but it’s also registered as a limited liability company, a for-profit designation.”
• October 23: The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho says it will not seek to compel the Hitching Post to perform weddings for same-sex couples because a religious exemption applies. Per the Associated Press, that is apparently due to the Hitching Post’s change in status to become a “religious corporation” earlier this month.
• October 24: The city issues a press release stating that it will not pursue charges due to the Hitching Post’s status as “a religious corporation that is exempt from the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance.” The release is in response to a complaint filed with city police the previous day by a Massachusetts woman who says the owners refused to host a same-sex wedding.
Key things to know:
The city of Coeur d'Alene has on multiple occasions indicated that it is not threatening the Knapps with jail time, fines, or any other form of censure. City staff had previously indicated that the ordinance could apply to the Hitching Post, but the city now says the Hitching Post is exempt.
The first complaint filed with the city came after the media firestorm in which anti-LGBT commentators practically salivated at the perceived injustice. The city is taking no action against the Knapps as a result of that complaint.
The Hitching Post has apparently in the past operated as a for-profit business and offered civil services as well as religious ceremonies. Earlier this month, it either became a religious organization or decided to present itself as such. If the Knapps are operating and plan to continue operating the Hitching Post as a religious organiztion, they have no reason to fear prosecution from the city.
The well-publicized lawsuit, which caused anti-LGBT commentators to sound the alarms, would seem to be premature at best (and a cynical ploy at worst).
It’s not the first time that opponents of equality have stirred anti-LGBT furor with less-than-truthful claims. Besides the outright bizarre claims made by prominent right-wing figures — Pat Robertson’s and Rick Santorum’s recent remarks, for instance — there have been more subtle attempts to twist the truth to stonewall LGBT rights.
Last fall it happened with a story invented in order to raise the specter of transgender children presenting a threat to their peers in restrooms. And in the current news cycle, the subpoena of sermons in Houston has been falsely portrayed as a move to bully anti-LGBT pastors. In fact, as Media Matters notes, the subpoenas are related to a lawsuit filed by antigay activists seeking a ballot referendum to repeal the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance. That is to say, ministers who oppose the nondiscrimination ordinance have their allies to blame for the subpoenas, not LGBT people.
Full disclosure: The writer of this piece has been contracted to promote an event, unrelated to this story, for which the ACLU of Southern California is among the cosponsoring organizations.