Daily Beast's Kohn: Christian Wedding Chapel Can't Deny Gay Couples

October 23rd, 2014 6:00 PM

Daily Beast liberal columnist Sally Kohn took to her keyboard today to insist that Christian clergy who own a wedding chapel do not have a constitutionally-guaranteed religious-freedom right to refuse to conduct business with same-sex couples. Kohn was prompted to action by news out of Idaho involving Donald and Lynn Knapp, ordained ministers who run the Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel in Coeur d'Alene.

"The first thing you need to know is that most 'wedding chapel'” are not actually chapels," Ms. Kohn began her article, adding: 

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.


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.

Of course it's common sense that, in the strictest religious sense, wedding chapels are not, well, actual chapels. After all, they do exist as moneymaking ventures, albeit moneymaking ventures catering to a religious audience, kind of like religious bookstores or sellers of religious art. That said, it is supremely dangerous for government to be in the position to decide questions that are essentially theological and ecclesial in nature.

Having a government declare a wedding chapel run by ordained ministers to be a business subject to anti-discrimination laws and public accommodation laws arguably runs afoul of both the "free exercise" and "establishment of religion" clauses of the First Amendment. It violates the former because ordained ministers are unable to perform a clerical function in accord with the scruples of their religious conscience and it may -- although this is probably a weaker argument -- violate the latter because the state is insisting that a house of worship is, well, not really a house of worship and hence not worthy of protection. Such a view essentially has government establishing that to be a legitimate house of worship, it must be non-profit or non-commercial in its entirety. 

"We strive to make your wedding experience memorable and personal for you" with "ordained ministers [who] will marry you using a traditional, religious ceremony," the Hitching Post notes in an FAQ section response to the question, "What is the difference between marrying at the Hitching Post vs. the Courthouse?"

Because the Hitching Post promises a traditional, religious ceremony in the Christian tradition that is officiated  "by our Licensed or Ordained Hitching Post ministers," it is most certainly understood by potential clients that the proprietors would accordingly wish to reserve the right to not do business with those who demand a wedding experience that contradicts the fundamental understanding of the Christian faith of the Hitching Post's owner/operators.

Traditionally, even ministers at non-profit churches receive a gratuity for officiating a wedding, and often houses of worship lease out fellowship halls, kitchens, and even sanctuaries for couples getting married, including couples who are NOT members of the church in question. This might strike some as fundamentally commercial activity, not religious in nature, and ergo worthy of anti-discrimination protection and public accommodation regulations.

It is quite possible that this is the next avenue of attack for same-sex marriage activists, with the tentacles of government reaching into church offices and requiring that churches either allow same-sex couples to wed on their premises or for churches to stop the practice of renting out facilities for the use of non-members.

In such a case, would Ms. Kohn insist that no one is requiring churches to open their doors to non-members to rent their facilities and therefore they can easily comply with government regulations without violating religious conscience? Unfortunately, I fear, we may find out soon enough.

Image above via HitchingPostWeddings.com.