CLEVELAND, Ohio — A Cleveland minister can avoid marrying same-sex couples in Cuyahoga County, without the fear of prosecution, under a proposed settlement involving the county’s anti-discrimination law.
Attorneys for Kristi Stokes, an evangelical Christian from Cleveland, and the county filed the tentative agreement Friday in U.S. District Court over a lawsuit she brought in July. Judge James Gwin must approve the settlement.
Stokes claimed her business, Covenant Weddings, offers services only “that celebrate marriage between one biological man and one biological woman,” the lawsuit said.
She said the county’s law forced her to perform same-sex weddings or face prosecution.
The proposed settlement said the county cannot compel Stokes and her business “to offer officiating and writing services against their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The tentative settlement indicates one of the key reasons why: Neither Stokes nor her business has a storefront or office in the county ”that could be considered a place of public accommodation.”
The county’s law stresses that any “proprietor or any employee, agent, keeper or manager of a public place of accommodation” cannot discriminate against others.
“Even if [Stokes and her business] could be considered a place of public accommodation, the accommodation clause does not mandate or force Kristi Stokes, or any other minister, to officiate or solemnize weddings against their sincerely held religious beliefs,” the proposed agreement said.
Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s handled the case. A spokesman for the office declined to comment.
The county’s ordinance, passed in September 2018, offers protections to people on the basis of the already protected classes of race, color, religion, military status, national origin, disability, age, ancestry, familial status or sex, and it adds sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to that list.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization, filed the lawsuit. It has supported Stokes, and it hailed the proposed settlement as a victory.
“Cuyahoga County has agreed to allow Kristi Stokes to continue to operate consistent with her religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman,” a statement from the organization said. “This agreement comes in light of a settlement involving the county’s public accommodation law.”
Attempts to reach Stokes were unsuccessful.
The settlement does not appear to involve financial considerations, as each party must bear its own costs, including attorney fees.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has described the Alliance Defending Freedom as a hate-group because “it has supported the idea that being LGBTQ should be a crime in the United States and abroad and believes that it is OK to put LGBTQ people in prison for engaging in consensual sex.”