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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Christian Marriage Business Can Sue City

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (CN) - A federal judge ruled that a Christian-based wedding service, fearing fines for code violations if it does not perform same-sex marriages, has standing to sue the City of Coeur D'Alene, Idaho - but only for one day's lost income.

Donald and Evelyn Knapp and their business, Hitching Post Weddings, sued Coeur d'Alene in October 2014, claiming they had been forced to shut down their business temporarily because of a city anti-discrimination ordinance.

They say the law forced them to choose between violating their religious beliefs or violating city ordinance § 9.56, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Knapps, who bought the Hitching Post in 1989, operated the business as an S Corporation until September 2014, when they formed Hitching Post Weddings LLC.

The change apparently was prompted by the May 13, 2014 ruling in Latta v. Otter, 19 F.

Supp. 3d 1054 (D. Idaho 2014), in which U.S. District Judge Candy Dale invalidated Idaho laws defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman. (Defendant Butch Otter is the governor of Idaho.)

After that ruling, Coeur d'Alene indicated to local media and to the Knapps that the city ordinance applies to places of public accommodation, including the Hitching Post.

In response, the Knapps executed an Oct. 6, 2014 operating agreement that states in part: "The Hitching Post is 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."

They identified the Hitching Post as a "religious corporation" whose purpose is to "help people create, celebrate and build lifetime, monogamous, one-man-one-woman marriages as defined by the Holy Bible."

Meanwhile, Latta v. Otter found its way to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed Dale's ruling in Idaho on Oct.7, 2014.

The Knapps then closed their doors, saying they feared city fines. They re-opened on Oct. 16, one day after county clerks throughout Idaho were allowed to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The Knapps say they continue to operate in a "constant state of fear that they may one day go to jail and/or pay substantial fines" if they violate the city code.

They sued the city on Oct. 17, 2014, alleging violation of the free speech, equal protection, due process and Idaho's Free Exercise of Religion Protected Act.

They seek monetary damages for the seven days they shut down.

The city sought dismissal on March 30, 2015, claiming the Knapps lack standing because the city has acknowledged that the Hitching Post is a religious corporation and exempt from the city code.

But on March 25, U.S. District Judge Ronald Bush said that's too little, too late.

"It does not stretch the boundaries of reasonableness to conclude that, in closing for seven days an otherwise open and operating business catering in part to walk-in trade, lost income would understandably follow," Bush wrote in a 31-page order. "Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged an injury-in-fact in the form of economic injury."

Bush added, however, that the connection between the Knapps' economic injury and the city's alleged conduct "is more problematic."

The city argued that the Knapps closed the business on their own and are liable for their own lost revenue. Bush disagreed, but significantly narrowed the scope of the Knapps' claim.

"Plaintiffs plausibly have identified conduct on the part of the city that allegedly contributed to the Knapps' decision to close the Hitching Post which, in turn, allegedly caused plaintiffs to suffer economic losses," the judge wrote. "However ... same-sex marriage was not legal in Idaho until Oct. 15, 2014 at 9 a.m. In other words, even if the ordinance applied to plaintiffs, there could have been no violation (by anyone) for refusing to officiate same-sex wedding ceremonies until Oct. 15.

"Accordingly, plaintiffs could not have violated the ordinance by refusing to officiate same-sex wedding ceremonies on Oct. 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 14. Hence, plaintiffs have standing to bring such a claim for economic injury, but it is limited to that single day of Oct. 15."

Bush also found that the Knapps lack standing to bring a pre-enforcement challenge to the city's ordinance.

"Plaintiffs' concern that the Hitching Post's status may change in the future (to the point that it would then be unequivocally violating the ordinance) is not sufficiently actual or imminent," he wrote. "Ultimately, plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate any specific threat of prosecution for future violations of the ordinance."

The Knapps' attorney Virginia McNulty Robinson, in Coeur d'Alene, did not immediately return a phone call on Tuesday.

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