Should wedding officiants be forced to use their services for same-sex or transgender weddings?
That’s the question before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in a lawsuit, Covenant Weddings LLC v. Cuyahoga County, from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) challenging a nondiscrimination ordinance.
Kristi Stokes is an ordained minister and wedding officiant who opened a business, Covenant Weddings, in August 2019. In addition to officiating weddings, she “writes custom homilies, vows and prayers for weddings.”
Stokes believes what the Bible teaches about marriage – what was believed and taught by Moses, Paul and Jesus – that God designed marriage to be the sacred, covenantal union between one biological man and one biological woman. As a Christian, she believes that marriage between one man and one woman “reflects and points people to the special covenantal relationship Jesus shares with His Church.”
But her beliefs run afoul of a Cuyahoga County ordinance that outlaws discrimination based on “sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression” (SOGI) in housing, employment and public accommodations. The county includes Cleveland as its county seat and largest city.
The ordinance defines “sexual orientation” as “homosexuality, bisexuality, or heterosexuality.” “Gender identity or expression,’” according to the law, “means an individual’s actual or perceived gender-related identity, appearance, expression, mannerisms, or other gender-related characteristics, regardless of the individual’s designated sex at birth.”
The County passed the ordinance in September 2018. The law offers religious exemptions in housing and employment for religious organizations, but none for public accommodations. LGBT activists and their allies use the derogatory phrase “license to discriminate” to describe such religious exemptions in SOGI laws. Covenant Weddings is not a church or nonprofit, so it’s forced to comply with all aspects of the law.
In order to run her business in the county, Stokes must offer her writing and officiating services for same-sex weddings. She must also accommodate weddings involving individuals who identify as the opposite sex – or some other “gender,” violating her religious beliefs.
She’s concerned that offering services only for one-man, one-woman weddings, and specifying this on her website and social media pages, could land her in trouble.
If Covenant Weddings violates the law, and a complaint were filed, Stokes could be investigated, prosecuted and fined by a “Human Rights Commission,” which was created by the ordinance. Fines are up to $1,000 for a first offense, up to $2,500 for a second offense and up to $5,000 for third and subsequent offenses – “plus reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs to the Complainant.”
ADF’s lawsuit alleges that the county ordinance violates Stokes’ First Amendment rights, including her freedom of speech, association, and religion. The suit says that the ordinance also violates Ohio’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
Ministry and service have been part of Stokes’ life from a young age, whether teaching and working as a missionary in Zimbabwe or helping homeless people in Cleveland. She’s held positions in her church in youth ministry, music ministry, and as an associate pastor.
“My religious beliefs influence every aspect of my life, and I can’t simply put my religious identity into separate personal and professional boxes,” Stokes said, adding, “I’m simply asking that my county also respect me, my business, and my freedoms as an American citizen instead of forcing me to write or speak messages that contradict my beliefs.”
Read more about Covenant Weddings LLC v. Cuyahoga County at Alliance Defending Freedom: Ohio minister challenges law forcing her to officiate, write for same-sex weddings.
Photo from Alliance Defending Freedom
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