They said it would never happen.
“If same-sex marriage becomes legal, pastors won’t be forced to perform same-sex weddings.” Yet this is what nearly happened to Donald and Evelyn Knapp, an Idaho couple who operated a wedding venue called the Hitching Post where they have married thousands of couples.
For months, the Idaho city of Coeur d’Alene indicated that if same-sex marriage were to become legal, for-profit businesses—businesses like the Hitching Post—would be subject to its recently passed city ordinance adding sexual orientation and gender identity to its public-accommodation law.
And right on cue, just days after same-sex marriage became legal in Idaho, the Knapps received a request to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony. They stood by their beliefs and politely declined to perform such a ceremony. The Knapps then sued the city to protect their rights and avoid jail time and fines. Thankfully, the city eventually backed down.
What is the Hitching Post?
Donald and Evelyn Knapp owned and operated the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel, a charming chapel in Coeur d’Alene conveniently located across from the county clerk’s office. Couples can get their marriage license at the clerk’s office, cross the street, and get married.
The Knapps, both ordained ministers in their 60s, began operating the wedding chapel in 1989 as a ministry. They performed religious wedding ceremonies, including references to God, the invocation of God’s blessing on the union, brief remarks drawn from the Bible designed to encourage the couple and help them to have a successful marriage, and more. They also provided each couple they marry with two recorded sermons about marriage, and they recommended numerous Christian books on the subject.
The Knapps’ religious beliefs informed every aspect of their work at the Hitching Post. Meanwhile, the chapel always operated as a for-profit business.
Coeur d’Alene’s public-accommodation ordinance
In 2013, Coeur d’Alene adopted Ordinance 9.56. The ordinance prohibits places of “public accommodation” from denying “any person because of sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression, the full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges of any place of public resort, accommodation, assemblage, or amusement.”
Each day and each occurrence that a person is in violation of the ordinance constitutes a separate misdemeanor offense punishable “by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1000.00), or by imprisonment not to exceed one hundred eighty (180) days, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”
Sending mixed messages
Because the Hitching Post is a for-profit business, Donald and Evelyn knew that if same-sex marriage became legal in Idaho, they would likely be in violation of the city’s ordinance and prosecuted. In fact, for several months, the city agreed and said as much.
On at least three occasions, the city indicated that since the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel is a for-profit business, it would be considered a place of public accommodation and therefore subject to the ordinance. The city attorney said so on TV and in a newspaper, specifically mentioning the Hitching Post. After these reports came out, Donald even called the city attorney’s office, which twice confirmed that he and his wife would be in violation of the ordinance if they declined to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony at the Hitching Post.
That’s why, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit invalidated Idaho’s marriage laws and legalized same-sex marriage on Oct. 7, 2014, the Knapps closed their business for several days until Oct. 15 out of fear of being prosecuted. But closing up shop wasn’t a sustainable option, so they decided to reopen. Just one day after reopening on Oct. 16, the Knapps received a request to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony and politely declined based on their religious beliefs.
Because of this request and their reasonable belief that the city would enforce its ordinance against them, the Knapps filed a pre-enforcement challenge against the city ordinance that same day. And just three days after the Knapps filed their lawsuit, the city sent a letter confirming that for-profit corporations like the Hitching Post would be subject to the ordinance.
But just three days after this letter, the public outcry became too loud. The city sent a second letter stating clearly that the Hitching Post would be exempt from the ordinance.
The outcome of the Hitching Post lawsuit
Their lawsuit and the intense public scrutiny led to a positive outcome for Donald and Evelyn. In the end, the city promised not to enforce the ordinance against the Hitching Post. In addition, ADF secured a judgment that compensated the couple for some of the time their business had been closed.
Thankfully, ADF’s 2023 Supreme Court victory in 303 Creative v. Elenis affirmed free-speech protections for all Americans, including expressive businesses like the Hitching Post. Governments can’t use public-accommodation laws to compel Americans to speak messages they disagree with.
- June 2013: Coeur d’Alene passed an ordinance amending its public-accommodation law to include sexual orientation and gender identity in its list of protected characteristics.
- Oct. 7, 2014: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld a district court ruling invalidating Idaho’s laws affirming marriage, requiring marriage licenses to be issued to same-sex couples. For fear of being punished by the city ordinance, the Knapps temporarily closed the Hitching Post until Oct. 16.
- Oct. 10, 2014: The U.S. Supreme Court denied an application to stay the 9th Circuit order.
- Oct. 13, 2014: The 9th Circuit ordered Idaho to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses as of Oct. 15, based on its Oct. 7 ruling.
- Oct. 17, 2014: The Knapps politely declined a request to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony, potentially subjecting them to jail time and fines. That same day, ADF filed a federal lawsuit and a motion for a temporary restraining order to stop the officials in Coeur d’Alene from enforcing its public-accommodation law against the Knapps.
- Oct. 20, 2014: City officials sent a letter saying that ordained ministers operating a for-profit wedding chapel are in violation of the city ordinance for declining to marry same-sex couples.
- Oct. 23, 2014: City officials sent a second letter “clarifying” that the Hitching Post would not be prosecuted under the ordinance.
- March 2016: A federal court issued a motion-to-dismiss decision allowing part of the Knapps’ pre-enforcement lawsuit to proceed.
- May 2016: ADF secured a judgment to compensate the Knapps for some of the time they remained closed. Based on the city’s promise that it would not enforce the ordinance against the Hitching Post, the rest of the lawsuit was dismissed.