There has been a story going around since last October, spread by social media and word of mouth, and (of course) Fox News, that the city of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho had threatened local ministers with jail if they refused to perform gay wedding ceremonies.

The specifics of the case relate to a wedding chapel, the Hitching Post, owned by a married couple, Donald and Evelyn Knapp, who are ordained ministers in the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Gay marriage became legal in Idaho on October 15, 2014; on October 17, the Hitching Post received a phone inquiry from a man asking whether they would be willing to perform a gay wedding ceremony. The Hitching Post said no. Donald Knapp, days later (obviously prepared) filed a lawsuit against the City of Coeur d'Alene to prevent them from arresting him for violating a local non-discrimination ordinance.

Everything that supposedly happened after that, as reported by the Alliance Defending Freedom (a vigorous anti-gay organization), which is representing the Knapps, and passed along by Fox News, is a blend of twisted facts, paranoid fantasy, and outright fabrication.

Like many municipalities in the U.S., Coeur d'Alene has an anti-discrimination ordinance, which, among its protections, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Coeur d'Alene's ordinance applies to "places of public accommodation," a category that does not include churches.

The question arises, in that case, as to whether the Hitching Post (owned, as I said, by ordained ministers and existing for the purpose of performing weddings) is a church or a place of public accommodation.

The Fox News report on the issue can be found in the article "City Threatens To Arrest Ministers Who Refuse to Perform Same-Sex Weddings". (Follow the link if you want to see the original article.) According to Fox, Coeur d'Alene City Attorney Warren Wilson said that the Hitching Post would "likely be required to follow the ordinance," and Wilson told Donald Knapp that "he could be fined up to $1000 and sentenced to up to 180 days in jail."

Though it is made clear that the article is about a particular husband-wife team of ministers, note the general hysteria promoted and encouraged by the headline of the article. There is, no doubt intentionally, a single letter missing from one of the words in the headline that makes a world of difference in how readers of the article will interpret the content of the article. If it had said "...Ministers Who Refused to Perform...", then the reader would immediately be aware that the article was about a specific case. But Fox went with "...Ministers Who Refuse to Perform..." which carries the implication that any minister, anywhere, under any circumstances, who declines to officiate at a gay wedding is going to be arrested. Since this plays into the already existing fears of the Religious Right that Christians everywhere are all under general threat, the article serves its purpose in "proving" the fears to be true.

Several things should be noted about the article. First, the actual quote attributed to City Attorney Wilson was made in May of 2014, to the Spokesman-Review, a local newspaper in Spokane, Washington -- that is, it was not made in response to what happened in October, five months later, but was said as a matter of future speculation long before the issue actually arose. Second, though the article runs that quote from Wilson and the reported "threat" together as if they happened simultaneously, they did not.

And third, the claim that Wilson had threatened Donald Knapp with jail time was made in the documents filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom in the lawsuit. The threat, if it occurred, was not made in any public forum, and considering that the threat represents the heart of the lawsuit, there is plenty of room for doubt as to whether the threat was ever made at all: the ADF is not a source of objective reporting on this incident.

The truth of the claim of a threat should be put in context of other claims made in the case by the ADF, as reported by James Peron on Huffington Post, in "Is A Church Being Forced to Perform a Gay Wedding?". As Peron points out,

The couple who own the Wedding Chapel are ordained, but running a business, not a church. Nor are they pastors, since they don't have a church, as ADF claimed. A church can discriminate -- and they do so all the time, even when it comes to weddings. The Knapps, however, present the Hitching Post as a business, open to the public, and not as a ministry or religious establishment... In the past their web page openly admitted they would "marry you using a traditional or civil ceremony" and would also "perform wedding ceremonies of other faiths as well as civil weddings." Now the ADF claims the business will "only perform ceremonies consistent with their religious beliefs." At no point did the doctrines the Knapps believe restrict their business activity prior to same-sex marriage becoming legal. These admissions were scrubbed from their page after they filed their lawsuit.

That last is an important point: In order to make the Hitching Post's claim to being a religious institution more tenable, the ADF had the Knapps change the information on their website after the fact, to delete the offer to perform civil ceremonies.

There are some more important facts in another article from the indisputably religious National Catholic Register, "No, Pastors Are NOT Facing Jail Time for Not Marrying Gays", by Steven Greydanus, this one written after considerable time had gone by allowing for research, in April, 2015.

Let me give some context for judging the reliability of Greydanus's findings. The National Catholic Register, and Steven Greydanus in particular, are in no sense in favor of gay marriage. At one point in the article, Greydanus clarifies his own position: "...[S]ame-sex marriage is deeply troubling, and many people, particularly people serving the wedding industry, stand to be completely destroyed by a vindictive gay-marriage lobby and an accommodating culture. I'm not saying there's nothing to worry about."

So Greydanus, and NCR, have no ulterior motive in knocking down the sensationalized media reports from Coeur d'Alene. They are not doing so to support their own views on gay marriage; quite the contrary. But Greydanus, on looking into the facts, found that this particular case had suffered from a social media panic blitz (no doubt inspired, at least in part, by that purposeful misrepresentation made in the Fox News headline) that gave everyone the impression that all ministers who refused gay weddings would be going to jail. Says Greydanus:

I can't find any evidence in that article or elsewhere that any ordinance or any city official said anything that could be construed as threatening fines or jail time for "Christian pastors within their community" beyond the specific case of for-profit wedding chapels.

Furthermore, Greydanus points out, contrary to the impression most people seemed to have taken from the reports of the Coeur d'Alene case, no one had ever actually filed a complaint against the Hitching Post, so that any legal threat of fines or jail time that had ever been made against the Knapps was purely theoretical, not a sign of imminent arrest: according to Greydanus,

I am not aware that the proprietors of the Hitching Post, despite having turned down a same-sex couple, were ever subjects of a lawsuit or any legal action. Instead, it was they, not the city or a disgruntled gay couple, who brought the only lawsuit I've read about. They sued the city and filed for a restraining order to ensure that no action would be taken against them for refusing to "marry" same-sex couples.

That is, the entire legal case was a matter of the Knapps preemptively suing the city, not a case of any rejected customer suing the Knapps nor the Knapps being cited for any non-discrimination violation. In the end, City Attorney Michael Gridley wrote, in a letter dated October 23 (immediately after the Knapps filed the lawsuit) to the Alliance Defending Freedom in their capacity as the Knapps' legal representatives, " is my opinion and the city's position that as currently represented, the conduct by Hitching Post Weddings LLC is exempt from the requirements of the ordinance and would not be subject to prosecution under the ordinance if a complaint was received by the city." (I don't know why it wasn't Warren Wilson, but I guess it is not specifically one "City Attorney" being quoted in various articles but instead various people in the City Attorney's office being quoted at different times) That is, when an actual test arrived of whether a non-denominational wedding chapel, unaffiliated with any church and run as a for-profit business, would be exempt from the non-discrimination ordinance, the city of Coeur d'Alene decided that, in fact, the wedding chapel is exempt, just in case anyone ever complains -- which no one had. Coeur d'Alene never made any move to arrest the Knapps for anything they had done. So at present, there is no evidence that Coeur d'Alene, or any other city in America, will put any ministers in jail for any refusal to conduct a gay wedding ceremony, even in a context in which an anti-discrimination ordinance technically, legally applies to them.

It must surely have been the Coeur d'Alene case that the Rev. Rick Scarborough had in mind when, according to media reports, he had threatened to "set himself on fire" if marriage equality became the law of the land. Scarborough, as we know now, was seriously misquoted. What he had actually said, on the subject of maintaining "traditional values" during an interview on the National Emergency Coalition show, was: "We are not going to bow, we are not going to bend, and if necessary we will burn." The talk of "burning" was actually, as Scarborough has clarified, a reference to the Biblical story or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were presented with a choice between bowing down to King Nebuchadnezzar or being thrown into a fire. They heroically chose the latter, and the Lord, according to the story, preserved their lives within the flames. Scarborough clearly had in mind the punishments he expected to receive (presumably including fines and jail time, not literally execution by flame) for his defiance of the State in refusing to recognize the legitimacy of gay marriage.

It's clear that not only did Scarborough never really threaten the world with the spectacle of his own self-immolation (who knows what that did for marshmallow sales), but that what he actually did say was a response to a completely non-existent threat. No authority, anywhere, is planning to throw him into a fire, arrest him, or punish him in any other way, for declining to recognize gay marriage. The danger he faces exists only in the cobwebs of his head.