- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2020

An ordained minister in Ohio is challenging a county law that she says forces her to perform same-sex marriages and ceremonies for transgender couples that conflict with her religious belief of marriage being the union of a man and a woman.

Kristi Stokes is an evangelical Christian who started Covenant Weddings LLC last year to officiate weddings and write vows, homilies and prayers for ceremonies, often quoting from scripture.

But Cuyahoga County recently passed a public accommodations law that Ms. Stokes says forces her to perform same-sex ceremonies if she offers the same services to different-sex couples. She also argues in court documents that the law prohibits her from posting about her religious beliefs on her company website, violating her constitutional rights.

“The First Amendment gives citizens the right to choose which weddings they perform and which ceremonies they promote — not county officials,” reads the legal complaint from Ms. Stokes, filed in federal court Wednesday.

The ordinance bans “discriminat[ing] against, or treat[ing] differently any person … regardless of … sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression,” according to court documents.



“Since a young age, I’ve dedicated my life to ministry, and today I love serving my community by officiating and writing for weddings,” Ms. Stokes said. “My religious beliefs influence every aspect of my life, and I can’t simply put my religious identity into separate personal and professional boxes.”

She also says she could face fines between $1,000 and $5,000 per violation.

Cuyahoga County spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan said county officials will “vigorously” defend the measure.

“Once we receive service, we will review it and vigorously defend it — it’s an important piece of legislation written and passed to ensure equal access and opportunity for all citizens of Cuyahoga County,” she said.

Kate Anderson, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious liberty law firm representing Ms. Stokes, said people can’t be forced to officiate weddings that conflict with religious beliefs. She’s asking the court to grant an injunction, protecting Ms. Stokes from being fined under the ordinance.

“Because of Cuyahoga County’s law, Kristi faces an impossible choice: disobey the law, defy her own faith, or ditch her business. Many different religions and countless people of good will believe that weddings are sacred ceremonies between one man and one woman. No matter one’s views on marriage, we all lose when bureaucrats can force citizens to participate in religious ceremonies they oppose, speak messages they disagree with, and stay silent about beliefs they hold dear,” Ms. Anderson said.

Alliance Defending Freedom points to more than 70 other wedding officiants in the Cleveland area who would be willing to perform same-sex ceremonies.

Ms. Stokes‘ lawsuit is one of several complaints that the group has filed attempting to strike down similar ordinances.

Last month, Chris Herring, owner of Chris Herring Photography, filed his 53-page complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia ahead of the Virginia Values Act that went into effect. He argued the law requires him to promote same-sex weddings on his website, which violates his First Amendment rights.

The Virginia law bans businesses from discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of sexual orientation. It also contains a publication clause that forbids individuals from publishing content that discriminates against LGBTQ people.

A similar lawsuit was filed against an Arizona law similar to the Virginia Values Act, which was challenged by wedding filmmakers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled in favor of the wedding vendors last year.

The filings come two years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Christian cake artist in Colorado after he refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. This year, the Supreme Court extended part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect LGBTQ employees in the workplace from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

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