Wedding officiant sues Ohio county over law forcing ministers to officiate same-sex weddings

Kristi Stokes (center), owner of Covenant Weddings in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, interacting with a bride and groom at a wedding photo shoot. | Courtesy of ADF

An ordained minister in Ohio has filed a federal lawsuit against Cuyahoga County, challenging a law that would require her to officiate same-sex marriage ceremonies or face a fine of $5,000.

Kristi Stokes, an evangelical Christian and the owner of Covenant Weddings, filed the lawsuit this week at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.

The county recently passed a law that forbids businesses from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, says the Christian legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed the suit on behalf of Stokes.

The law applies to any “place for the sale of merchandise to the public, or any other place of public accommodation or amusement where the accommodation advantages, facilities, or privileges thereof are available to the public.”

“Like other ministers, Kristi chooses which weddings to officiate and write about based on her faith,” the lawsuit says. “While Kristi works with and tries to convey God’s love to everyone no matter who they are, she can only celebrate weddings consistent with her beliefs.”

“Since a young age, I’ve dedicated my life to ministry, and today I love serving my community by officiating and writing for weddings,” 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. 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.”

The lawsuit says, “… Because Kristi offers wedding services that celebrate marriage between one biological man and one biological woman, the County says she must also provide the same services for weddings that contradict her beliefs or Kristi commits illegal ‘discrimination.’”

This, in turn, means that Stokes “must officiate same-sex weddings, pray over same-sex marriages, write vows calling biological men women, write homilies using incorrect or gender-neutral pronouns (like Per, Xe, and Ze) or face heavy fines, attorney fees, and injunctions,” the suit adds.

The law also forbids Stokes from explaining on her company’s website or social media “that she can only provide wedding services consistent with her religious views on marriage and gender.”

“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 goodwill believe that weddings are sacred ceremonies between one man and one woman.”

Anderson explained that it’s not just about 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.”

Stokes said 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.”

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