WASHINGTON (RNS) Same-sex marriage became legal in Idaho on Oct. 15, and within days, two faux clergy wedding profiteers and a gaggle of lawyers from the professional victim class began making headlines. At issue are thorny conflicts between religion and law, civil liberties and civil rights, and the sacred and secular meaning of marriage.
The story begins over a year ago. In response to the Idaho Legislature’s steadfast refusal to enact legislation protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, a number of Idaho municipalities adopted local ordinances of their own.
The picturesque lakeside town of Coeur d’Alene adopted its ordinance in June 2013.
The owners of the Hitching Post wedding chapel took notice, conferring with city officials about how the impending legalization of same-sex marriage could affect their business.
Though the proprietors, Donald and Evelyn Knapp, are ordained Pentecostal ministers, they operated their company not as pastors in a church but as sellers in a marketplace.
The Revs. Knapp are profiteers in the $40 billion wedding industrial complex. Not unlike Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas, or tacky roadside shacks in Branson, Mo., or Gatlinburg, Tenn., they solemnize civil marriages and charge a fee for their services. For extra cash, these clergy will even officiate at weddings on boats, hot-air balloons, or roller coasters.
As the legalization of same-sex marriage became increasingly inevitable, city officials advised the Knapps that, as a business open to the public, they would likely be in violation of the nondiscrimination ordinance if they refused service to a gay or lesbian couple.
It is unclear precisely when the Knapps became tangled up with the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Arizona-based network of activist lawyers who often shop around for cases in friendly venues that will arouse public sympathy. The Knapps are ideal plaintiffs because gay marriage proponents insist that they will never seek to force clergy to officiate at gay weddings or churches to host them.
In this case, the specter of ministers being compelled against their will plays right into conservatives’ worst fears. The only problem is that no one had complained to the city that the Knapps would not perform a same-sex marriage ceremony.
That fact did not stop ADF from preemptively suing the city, and supplying the conservative media with stories about ordained ministers being threatened with jail and fines for refusing to celebrate a same-sex wedding.
In the end, the Knapps will likely prevail in their case because, as journalist Andrew Sullivan reminded us, “Requiring individuals to perform a marriage ceremony against their beliefs is just something we don’t do in a liberal society.”
But neither the Knapps nor their lawyers are the civil rights heroes they are making themselves out to be.
The Knapps are businesspeople, not pastors. They abandoned their religious vocation the moment they traded the sacred meaning of marriage for a profit-making enterprise. A Christian wedding is a congregational celebration. Christian marriage begins in a church, not a kitschy resort-town “chapel.” The couple’s pastor officiates, not a rent-a-reverend with a notary stamp.
Their audacious feigning of religious concern shamelessly and brazenly impugns the ministry of actual pastors who seek to strengthen their congregants’ marriages through preaching and teaching on the subject, who diligently counsel couples seeking marriage, and who give up precious family time many Friday and Saturday nights each year for rehearsals and weddings.
Traditional marriage advocate Ryan Anderson plays up the couple’s religious vocation, calculating that “a week of honoring their faith and declining to perform the ceremony could cost the couple 3 1/2 years in jail and $7,000 in fines.”
The Knapps have not been honoring their faith by using their ministerial credentials for profit all these years. They are certainly not honoring it now.
If the Knapps have never applied a shred of pastoral scrutiny in their long years of marriage profiteering but suddenly invoke it to deny their services to a specific class of people, their faith seems blatantly bigoted.
States allow clergy to solemnize marriage contracts if they are in good standing with their credentialing ecclesial authority. Surely the Knapps’ denomination, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, would not countenance its clergy selling marriages on the quick — without premarital counseling and completely apart from any church context.
To be sure, we cannot and should not compel clergy to solemnize civil marriages against their consciences. But to the degree that the Knapps’ consciences only trouble them now that same-sex marriage is legal, theirs will be a victory for bigotry as much as for liberty.
ADF hit the venue-shopping lottery in Coeur d’Alene. It groomed the Knapps for months, fabricated a controversy, sacralized the Knapps’ tacky business, and advised them to change their website and incorporation status in order to win a case that will create maximal legal precedent for religiously sanctioned discrimination.
Neither ADF nor the Knapps seem concerned that they further conflate marriage’s sacred and civil meaning.
Welcome, gay Idahoans, to the holy estate of marriage. Don’t laugh too hard at the people who say that you are the ones who mock the institution.
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf.)
KRE/AMB END LUPFER