The Hitching Post in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
In an opinion issued last week, a federal district court in Idaho found that a wedding services business, Hitching Post, which refused to officiate same-sex marriages on religious grounds, did not have standing to challenge an ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The ordinance at the center of the case, passed in 2013 by the city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, prohibited discrimination because of sexual orientation. The ordinance specifically exempted religious corporations, although it did not define what constituted a religious corporation.
The owners of Hitching Post, who were also ordained ministers of the Christian religion, had operated a for-profit wedding services business in Coeur d’Alene since 1989 although they had not expressly identified the business as a religious corporation. In 2014, the owners reorganized their business and executed an operating agreement identifying the business as a religious corporation and setting forth the purpose of the entity as follows: “[T]o help people create, celebrate and build lifetime, monogamous one-man-one-woman marriages as defined by the Holy Bible….” The owners did not inform the city of the reorganization and the city did not learn of it until months later.
A few months after Hitching Post’s reorganization, the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court decision invalidating Idaho’s prohibition against same-sex marriage. Following the Ninth Circuit’s decision, Hitching Post immediately closed its doors for seven days, contending that Hitching Post had no choice but to close to avoid violating the owners’ sincerely held beliefs or incurring substantial fines.
Starting on the final day of Hitching Post’s closure period, county clerks throughout Idaho were permitted to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Hitching Post reopened for business the following day, but continued to decline to perform same-sex marriages. Hitching Post filed suit against the city claiming compensatory damages associated with the closing of the business and seeking to enjoin the ordinance and declare it unconstitutional as applied to them.
At trial, the city argued that because Hitching Post was a religious corporation, it was exempt from the city’s ordinance. The city filed a motion to dismiss, contending that because Hitching Post was exempt, Hitching Post lacked standing and its claims were not yet ripe.
The trial court granted the city’s motion to dismiss Hitching Post’s claim for compensatory damages with respect to the first six days of the seven-day closure period, and denied the city’s motion with respect to the final day. In holding that Hitching Post lacked standing with respect to all but the final day of the closure period, the court pointed to the fact that no one—including Hitching Post—could have violated the ordinance until marriage licenses could be legally issued to same-sex couples which did not occur until the final day of the closure period. Hitching Post did not have standing to file a claim for economic damages resulting from an ordinance that prohibited otherwise unlawful conduct. Thus, Hitching Post only had standing to assert a claim with respect to economic loss incurred on the final day of the closure period.
With respect to Hitching Post’s pre-enforcement challenge to the ordinance, the court agreed with the city that Hitching Post’s claim was not yet ripe. The court refused to extend the overbreadth doctrine, which allows a plaintiff to challenge a law that has a chilling effect on speech, to a situation where (a) the plaintiff was exempt from the ordinance in question; (b) the city, upon learning of Hitching Post’s reorganization as a religious organization, had communicated that it would not prosecute Hitching Post under the ordinance; and (c) the city had not enforced the ordinance against anyone in the year and a half since its enactment. The court was not convinced by Hitching Post’s argument that its exempt status under the ordinance could change and granted the city’s motion to dismiss.
Photo credit: Stevie Webb, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevie_webb/8928726724/in/photolist-bnYjc-eAXgMg-eB14od-6NWU8B-6NWVDg-wPihDe/