The first thing you need to know is that most “wedding chapels” are not actually chapels. They are private businesses, sometimes run by ordained ministers who are thus licensed to perform marriage ceremonies, but just as often run by Elvis impersonators. Thus, the question of how marriage-equality laws apply to private wedding chapels is ostensibly a question of under what circumstances the government can lawfully step on a for-profit company’s blue suede shoes.
Ground zero for this debate is now Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. There, the city is apparently requiring the Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel to officiate gay weddings. Now, it’s hard to imagine any gay couple wanting to get married at the Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel. Their website talks about “the difference between men and women” and says “women respond to love positively because they were created that way” and “men respond to respect because that is the way they are created.”
Yeah. And the private “chapel” reportedly gives its newlyweds a conservative Christian CD with hetero-reinforcing marriage sermons. Then again, given the über-butch Paul Bunyan log-cabin façade, if some gay men mistook the Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel for a for a Western bar, that would be understandable.
Anyway, after a court effectively made marriage equality the law of the land in Idaho a week ago, it appears some misguided gay couple wandered into the Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel. The owners, Evelyn and Donald Knapp, apparently declined to marry the couple and instead filed a federal lawsuit to stop the city of Coeur d’Alene from enforcing its non-discrimination law. Yup, Evelyn and Donald Knapp are “ordained Christian ministers” suing for the right to discriminate.
State and federal laws generally exempt religious institutions from having to perform gay marriages. Yet the Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel is not a church or a synagogue or a mosque but a private business—apparently one in the newly created categorical mold of Hobby Lobby, a “for-profit religious corporation.” If you wondered what the slippery slope of the Hobby Lobby decision might entail, here’s a good look. In the Hobby Lobby ruling, Justice Alito wrote that the decision does not “provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.” We’ll see about that. The faith-based legal advocacy group defending the Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel will undoubtedly lean on Hobby Lobby to make its case.
Either way, it’s worth noting that the Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel is at this point being required to officiate same-sex weddings not because of any federal or state law, but because of local non-discrimination laws passed in Coeur d’Alene. So much for all those conservatives who want the federal government to butt out and let local jurisdictions rule. I guess that’s only when they agree with the local jurisdictions.
By the same token, conservatives seem to only support government forcing people to do things when it comes to requiring that doctors read out loud misleading information written by abortion opponents to any women patients contemplating terminating a pregnancy. That kind of government coercion of speech and action seems a-OK to the conservative liberty crowd. But requiring a private business to provide equal accommodation to all Americans, including the gay ones? Tyranny!
Mind you, just as Hobby Lobby initially covered the forms of contraception that it later stopped covering and objected to when filing suit, the Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel entirely reincorporated its business just last month with a new business certificate and a new operating agreement that suddenly includes the religious values also asserted in their lawsuit. They now have a new Employee Policy and Customer Agreement saying they will only perform weddings “between one biological male and one biological female.”
Conservatives are already trying to conflate the issues here, saying that Coeur d’Alene is forcing “Christian pastors” to perform same-sex weddings or “face jail”—deliberately blurring the line between this for-profit chapel and actual religious institutions and entities. But regardless, even in the case of florists or cake makers or photographers who want to discriminate against gay couples, their grounds for doing so are thin. It’s hard to argue that opposing marriage equality is a central tenet of Christianity when majorities of Christian voters support same-sex marriage, as do an increasing number of denominations. In Kansas, where Republicans tried to pass a law legalizing discrimination by private businesses and individuals, the pastor of the state’s largest church took a stand for equal treatment, saying, “Jesus routinely healed, fed, and ministered to people whose personal lifestyle he likely disagreed with.”
Pastor Andy Stanley, head of the second-largest evangelical church in America, said, “Serving people we don’t see eye to eye with is the essence of Christianity. Jesus died for a world with which he didn’t see eye to eye. If a bakery doesn’t want to sell its products to a gay couple, it’s their business. Literally. But leave Jesus out of it.” In other words, using Christianity to rationalize discrimination against one’s fellow human beings doesn’t seem very, well, Christian.
Jesus also spoke very clearly about the dangers of private profit (“You cannot serve God and money.”), but I don’t see any of these so-called religious businesses rushing to embrace those teachings.
The Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel is a for-profit business, just like the Elvis Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas that also wants to discriminate against gay couples in violation of local, state, and federal laws and deeply held principles of fairness and equality on which our country was founded. The image of an Elvis impersonator trying to claim religious exemptions should strike us all as a hunka-hunka burning crap.
These entrepreneurs have chosen to incorporate as private businesses, with all the legal rights and privileges that entails. That means they have to follow the laws that apply to private businesses. Don’t wanna marry everyone who are entitled to marry legally under the law? Then don’t run a wedding business. After all, the government isn’t forcing you to be in that line of work.