After a California federal appeals court declared same-sex marriage legal in Nevada earlier this month, the wedding capital of the world welcomed gay couples with open arms. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority bought a full-page USA Today ad featuring a wedding cake with two grooms on top looking out over the Vegas cityscape. The tagline: “Now you can say ‘I do’ to one more thing here.” The city also has a Web site devoted to gay travel.
But a handful of Sin City’s dozens of wedding chapels have been turning gay couples away.
“My faith won’t allow it,” Dolly Deleon told 8 News Now. Deleon said she is a born-again believer in Jesus in addition to owning the Vegas Wed Chapel, a 24-hour, one-stop wedding shop a block from the hard-partying Vegas strip where lovebirds can hire hula dancers and have an Elvis impersonator bless their unions.
“I would be a hypocrite if I said I’m a Bible-believing person and yet I would perform marriage that believe is solely against God’s law,” Deleon said.
The Elvis Wedding Chapel, which offers “Blue Hawaii” and “Elvis in Concert” as themes for couples looking to formalize their commitment, also refuses to serve same-sex couples. A man identified only as David would not explain the policy to 8 News Now. “There is no story here,” he said as he refused to open the door to the TV station and their cameras.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, for-profit wedding chapels that turn away gay couples could be charged with a misdemeanor. The organization explained exceptions to the law only apply to religious institutions. “The difference between a church and a place of worship and a wedding chapel is that a wedding chapel is a business so that is covered under the Public Accommodations Law of Nevada,” Tod Story of the ACLU told News 8.
In Idaho, where gay marriage also recently became legal, a religious liberty group, Alliance Defending, filed a lawsuit Friday on behalf of two ordained ministers who don’t want to perform same-sex marriages at their for-profit wedding chapel.
Since it’s not a church, the chapel likely falls under the state’s public accommodation law, Coeur d’Alene city attorney Warren Wilson told the Idaho Spokesman-Review. Donald and Evelyn Knapp, who operate the Hitching Post, face 180 days in jail and up to $1,000 for turning gay couples away.
The complaint argues applying the law to the Knapps is unconstitutional and would violate the Free Exercise of Religion Protected Act, a state law that protects free exercise of religion absent a compelling government interest. The law even protects religion when the “burden” is imposed by another state law — in this case, the public accommodation act.
Unlike the quickie wedding chapels typical of Las Vegas, the Hitching Post’s officiants are ordained clergy, and they say their ceremonies are religious in nature.
U.C.L.A. Law professor Eugene Volokh, who has previously sided in litigation with a photographer who refused to photograph a gay wedding, thinks the Knapps will prevail on both the constitutional and state law arguments.
“I find it hard to see a compelling government interest in barring sexual orientation discrimination by ministers officiating in a chapel,” Volokh wrote in a recent post in his “Volokh Conspiracy” blog that runs in The Washington Post. “Whatever interests there may be in equal access to jobs, to education, or even in most public accommodations, I don’t see how there would be a ‘compelling’ government interest in preventing discrimination in the provision of ceremonies, especially ceremonies conducted by ministers in chapels.”