Christian wedding planner challenges anti-discrimination law

shutterstock 1153206070 Same-sex wedding cake. | Sara Valenti/Shutterstock

An Evangelical Christian minister who runs a wedding business in Cleveland has filed a lawsuit challenging a county ordinance she says would require her to officiate same-sex weddings.

Kristi Stokes, the owner of Covenant Weddings, filed the lawsuit on Wednesday against a Cuyahoga County anti-discrimination law; she is represented by the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

ADF senior counsel Kate Anderson said Stokes was challenging the law because she otherwise "faces an impossible choice: disobey the law, defy her own faith, or ditch her business,"

"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. "If you're looking for someone to officiate your wedding, and you're hoping to incorporate a cannabis theme or write prayers to celebrate an open marriage, I'm not your girl."

Stokes, an Evangelical Christian, previously served as a missionary in Zimbabwe and South Africa and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in chaplaincy.

She was appointed a minister and officiated her first wedding in December of 2018. She founded Covenant Weddings in August of 2019 and officiates weddings and writes prayers, homilies, and vows for couples.

According to her complaint, filed through Alliance Defending Freedom, Stokes believes "that God ordained marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman that reflects and points people to the special covenantal relationship Jesus shares with His Church."

She says she normally meets with potential clients before agreeing to officiate their weddings, and discusses her beliefs on marriage with them.

However, in September of 2019, Stokes says a client contacted her about potentially officiating her wedding; Stokes later found out that the wedding would be between two biological females, one of whom identified as a male.

She declined the wedding in December because of a scheduling conflict, and referred the couple to another minister. After that incident, however, Stokes began researching local laws and ordinances because of that circumstance, and discovered Cuyahoga County's anti-discrimination law.

The law forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in areas of public accommodation, among other areas. Stokes said her business is subject to the law and she would have to "proclaim messages and to participate in religious ceremonies that violate her religious beliefs, which she cannot do."

ADF argues that the Cuyahoga County anti-discrimination rule not only mandates Stokes perform same-sex weddings, but also that she would have to provide the same services as she would for other weddings, such as composing prayers, vows, and homilies. She also is barred from explaining her religious beliefs on marriage on her business website.

"Imams should not be forced to officiate Christian weddings they object to or write vows they disagree with," her complaint states. "Nor should LGBT artists be forced to sing at church services or draft church pamphlets condemning same-sex marriage. Likewise, Kristi should be free to officiate and celebrate the ceremonies she believes in."

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