Perform same-sex wedding ceremonies or pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines and spend months behind bars. That’s the choice their Idaho town gave one Christian couple who have made marriage ministry their life’s work.
Donald and Eyelyn Knapp, ordained Pentecostal ministers, are married to each other. Together, they have run Hitching Post Lakeside Wedding Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, since Ronald Reagan’s last year as president.
“The Apostle Paul spent quite a bit of time in jail for his faith, so who am I to feel like I have any right to avoid the same thing?” Don Knapp says during the couple’s exclusive interview with The Daily Signal.
“We can’t go against the teachings of the Bible and break our ordination vows,” Evelyn “Lynn” Knapp adds.
The test of faith began for Don, 68, and Lynn, 66, after an appeals court Oct. 7 overrode Idaho’s voter-approved constitutional amendment affirming marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Citing a “non-discrimination” ordinance, officials of Coeur d’Alene told the Knapps that they would be required to hold same-sex weddings at their chapel.
Earlier this month, the Knapps respectfully declined to hold a same-sex wedding in their small, lakeside chapel in the city of about 46,000. They face up to 180 days in jail and $1,000 in fines for each day they decline to celebrate that wedding.
On Oct. 17, the couple’s attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom filed a federal lawsuit and a motion for a temporary restraining order to stop the city from forcing the Knapps–ordained by a Pentecostal denomination called the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel–to violate their religious beliefs.
Now, in an exclusive interview with The Daily Signal via email, Don and Lynn Knapp speak out for the first time about why they decided to stand up to the law. The following Q&A was edited for length and clarity.
The Daily Signal: How did you meet and come to run Hitching Post Wedding Chapel?
Don: We both went to Bible college in our early 20s and both became ordained ministers. We have been married for 47 years and have been Christians for even longer. We have been serving couples at the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel for 25 years, and served at several churches for 13 years before that.
Lynn: We always felt called into full-time ministry; we thought we might be missionaries. The Lord specifically called us into wedding ministry. We love meeting the couples that walk through our doors. Our strengths and weaknesses complement each other. It’s been an adventure, to say the least.
The Daily Signal: Why are you opposed to holding same-sex wedding ceremonies?
Don: As Christians and ordained ministers we follow the teachings of the Bible, which makes clear that marriage is between a man and a woman. Our wedding ceremonies follow the traditional Christian format.
Each ceremony we perform includes an exchange of vows, a short sermon based on the Bible and teachings of Jesus, and prayer over the couple. We also give each couple a CD with two sermons about marriage and recommend biblically based marriage literature.
Lynn: We view what we do as a ministry, and hope and pray that each couple we serve will come to believe in Jesus Christ and base their marriage on biblical principles.
We try to create a service that honors God and that conveys God’s intention for marriage. We try to communicate that God loves marriage and people should follow God’s guidance about marriage
The Daily Signal: Is this the first time you declined to host a wedding — for any reason?
Don: In trying to remember back through 25 years of service, we were able to recall at least two specific instances where we declined to perform a one-man, one-woman wedding ceremony: a nudist wedding and a wedding at a cemetery during Halloween.
But one-man, one-woman ceremonies rarely conflict with our religious convictions because we are in control of the content of the ceremonies and ensure that they are consistent with our religious beliefs. There is no way a same-sex wedding ceremony can be consistent … because our sincerely held religious belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The Daily Signal: Do you agree with Coeur d’Alene officials and your critics that by declining to host same-sex wedding ceremonies you are “discriminating” against these couples?
Don: Of course we don’t agree with that. As ministers of the Gospel, we love all people. It is the core of who we are and what we are about. That’s not what’s at issue here, though. We run a marriage ministry and have felt called by God to do so for many years. The Bible is clear that marriage is a one-man, one-woman union. We pledged to uphold marriage in our ordination vows.
For the government to force us to reject that teaching and celebrate a ceremony that is forbidden by the teachings of our faith not only undermines the very ministry we have built our lives upon, but also violates our duty to God as his ministers and what He has entrusted us to do.
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The Daily Signal: Is that why you decided to fight city officials and file a federal lawsuit?
Don: The city of Coeur d’Alene made it clear at least three times this past year — both publicly and twice privately to me — that we would be breaking the law if we declined to conduct a same-sex ceremony. I was told we could face criminal prosecution, with a jail sentence of up to six months and/or a fine of up to $1,000 each time and each day we declined to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony.
On Friday, Oct. 17, around noon, a same-sex couple contacted us and inquired about us doing a ceremony. We respectfully declined because of our religious beliefs. Our attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom filed the lawsuit against the city Friday afternoon. On Friday evening, we received another request about a same-sex ceremony.
If someone was told by the government that he or she would be prosecuted and face up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines for exercising their First Amendment rights, they would not wait around to see if the government made good on that threat. They would file a lawsuit to protect their freedom and avoid jail and fines. And that’s what we did here.
The Daily Signal: Some critics allege that you edited your website so that Alliance Defending Freedom can turn you into “the latest victims of the marriage equality push.” Is this true?
Don: Our website change is irrelevant to the case. We have always only performed one-man, one-woman ceremonies. When Idaho redefined marriage to be something other than that last week, we updated our website to merely state what we have always done in light of the state’s change in position.
Our wedding ceremonies continue to be one-man, one-woman ceremonies like they always have been, and will continue to reflect our Christian faith and biblical principles.
The Daily Signal: What does the prospect of months in jail and paying thousands of dollars in fines mean to your family and business?
Don: Well, I don’t think anyone looks forward to the possibility of going to jail. That being said, though, people of faith throughout the centuries have faced jail or punishment for following the teachings of their faith. The Apostle Paul spent quite a bit of time in jail for his faith, so who am I to feel like I have any right to avoid the same thing?
Lynn: It’s heartbreaking. We love the Hitching Post and the people that walk through our doors on a daily basis. It’s our life, our ministry, our calling. From a financial perspective, even though it’s a small income, it’s what we live on. I really like to be able to do little things for my grandchildren, and I’m dreading the thought of not being able to do that anymore. But we can’t go against the teachings of the Bible and break our ordination vows.
The Daily Signal: How have people responded to your story?
Lynn: We have received an outpouring of support both around this country and internationally. I think people realize that if the government can force pastors to perform religious ceremonies that violate their faith’s teachings — or throw them in jail if they don’t — no American’s freedoms are safe.
The Daily Signal: Why is this issue so important to you?
Don: Our faith drives everything we do, both professionally and personally. And, as ordained ministers, we certainly don’t check the teachings of our faith at the door when we open the Hitching Post on Monday mornings and begin marrying people.
No one, minister or not, should be forced by the government to abandon their religious beliefs, simply because they go to work.
Lynn: We follow the Bible, which is clear that marriage is between a man and a woman. For the government to demand we go against that would be a total violation of our relationship with God and a violation of our ordination vows.
The Hitching Post’s bylaws state that it is a religious organization owned by two ordained ministers who operate it as an extension of their religious beliefs and ministerial vows. If ministers cannot operate a business according to their religious beliefs, then no one can.