Ohio minister challenges law forcing her to officiate, write for same-sex weddings

Lawsuit challenges county law forcing officiant to create vows, pray over same-sex weddings if she celebrates marriage between one man and one woman
Thursday, July 23, 2020

CLEVELAND – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing a Cleveland minister and wedding business owner filed suit in federal court Wednesday to challenge a Cuyahoga County law that forces her to use her ministry and business to officiate and compose homilies, vows, and prayers for same-sex weddings if she officiates or promotes weddings between one man and one woman.

Cuyahoga County also forbids Kristi Stokes and her business, Covenant Weddings, from publicly explaining on her own website and social media sites the religious reasons why she only celebrates weddings between one man and one woman. The county considers such communications to be unlawful “discrimination” based on sexual orientation. The law threatens fines of $1,000-$5,000 per violation, depending on their frequency, and the threat of investigation and expensive legal fees.

“No one should be forced to officiate ceremonies that conflict with their religious beliefs,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson. “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.”

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit and the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in favor of filmmakers and artists who brought similar challenges against laws like Cuyahoga County’s. ADF attorneys are asking the court to halt enforcement of the law against Stokes and her business while her lawsuit proceeds.

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

ADF attorneys filed the complaint and motion for preliminary injunction in the case, Covenant Weddings LLC v. Cuyahoga County, with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. The complaint explains how the county’s law violates various provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment’s Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses by infringing her freedom to create expression and participate in ceremonies consistent with her religious beliefs.

The complaint also notes that there are more than 70 wedding officiants in and near Cleveland and more than 150 wedding officiants in Ohio who will officiate same-sex weddings. 
  • One-page summary: Covenant Weddings v. Cuyahoga County
  • Pronunciation guide: Cuyahoga (Kai-ah-HAW-gah)

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
 
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