Hitching Post exempt

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COEUR d'ALENE - A Massachusetts woman filed a complaint with Coeur d'Alene city police Thursday claiming she called the Hitching Post that morning and was refused a same-sex wedding.

It was the first time the city's anti-discrimination ordinance was cited in a report to police. The ordinance makes denying employment, housing and other "public accommodations" based on sexual orientation a misdemeanor offense.

"After reviewing the allegations and investigation, the (city) prosecutor has declined to pursue criminal charges because the Hitching Post is a religious corporation that is exempt from the city's anti-discrimination ordinance," states a press release issued Friday afternoon by the city's communications coordinator.

The wedding chapel has been at the center of a national media frenzy since last week when attorneys for its owners, Don and Evelyn Knapp, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Coeur d'Alene. The suit claims that under the city's anti-discrimination ordinance the couple is being forced to violate their religious beliefs and perform same-sex unions.

The city's determination that the Hitching Post is exempt because it is a religious corporation is a departure from the initial stance the city attorney's office took on the matter.

In a letter sent Monday to the Knapps' legal team, City Attorney Mike Gridley wrote: "If they are operating as a legitimate not-for-profit religious corporation, then they are exempt from the ordinance like any other church or religious association."

Because the wedding chapel is set up as a for-profit business, a registered limited liability company, it appeared, based on Gridley's letter, that the city would not exempt the Hitching Post from the ordinance.

However, 12 days before the lawsuit was filed, the Knapps created an LLC operating agreement that says the Hitching Post is a for-profit business and it is a religious corporation.

Gridley sent a letter to the Knapps' attorney Thursday with a "clarification" of his earlier letter.

He wrote that it is now his opinion and the city's position that "as currently represented, the conduct by Hitching Post Weddings LLC is exempt from the requirements of the ordinance and would not be subject to prosecution under the ordinance if a complaint was received by the city."

The city's new position aligns with that of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations.

The ACLU issued a statement Thursday that it will not challenge the wedding chapel's refusal to perform same-sex marriages based on its designation as a religious corporation. ACLU leaders said they would, however, reconsider their decision if the Hitching Post begins offering non-religious services such as providing flowers or cakes, or begins holding non-religious marriage ceremonies.

The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, a local human rights organization, presented a similar position statement to city officials Friday.

City police investigators learned that the Massachusetts woman who filed the complaint against the Hitching Post was already married to a woman in that state.

The complainant told police by phone from Massachusetts that "an old lady" at the Hitching Post told her they would not provide the wedding service because it would be a violation of the owners' religious beliefs.

Evelyn "Lynn" Knapp told the police investigator that the woman called two times Thursday morning.

"Lynn said this female was yelling at her and calling her a 'redneck' and a 'bigot,'" states the police report.

Knapp told police the caller never requested a wedding, so Knapp didn't have to refuse service.

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