Kristi Stokes, an evangelical Christian minister from Cleveland, sued Cuyahoga County last week, alleging that her constitutional freedoms are being violated by the county’s law barring anti-discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Despite the fact that Stokes has not suffered any legal harm, the far-fetched idea that LGBTQ+ people might seek out this antigay minister to perform their nuptials has inspired her to proactively file suit to make sure this unlikely event never comes to pass.
To help us understand the case, Emily Meyer (Legal Clinic Staff Attorney) and Grant Stancliff (Communications Director) of Equality Ohio spoke with The Buckeye Flame Editor Ken Schneck in order to find out just how concerned we all should be.
So, nothing has happened to this minister, right? This is a proactive complaint?
MEYER: Correct. My reading of the complaint is that it is what we would call an “advisory opinion”, in that she and her LLC have not incurred any harm or legally recognized injury. There is one instance in the complaint referencing that she was approached by a couple-a trans man and cis female–that she would have wanted to turn down a celebration of their marriage. But she didn’t have to on religious grounds because there was a scheduling conflict. That was the one instance in the complaint of any sort of injury, and that wasn’t an injury; she was conflicted out.
It seems like a nuisance complaint, like maybe she has some free time?
MEYER: Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has the money and the time, and they are funding this suit. Last year, the City of South Euclid was sued, and it was also an ADF-funded lawsuit. The plaintiff in that case was the Lyceum, a Catholic school in in South Euclid, and they were challenging South Euclid’s nondiscrimination ordinance. The ACLU got involved with that one and the ADF and the Lyceum actually ended up abandoning their lawsuit. The ACLU did have a chance to respond and made the case that this was an advisory opinion, that the plaintiff and ADF were asking for legal advice when they had not actually been injured. This Cuyahoga County case brought me back to the South Euclid one in its similarity.
So what happens next?
MEYER: I don’t believe the county hasn’t responded. When they do, they can make the case to the court that this is a jurisdictional issue and that the case should be dismissed because it does not rise to the level of a cause of action on which the court could provide relief. It’s a threshold issue that a defendant could get it knocked out at this stage.
And if they don’t get it knocked out, what happens?
MEYER: Then the case would proceed. When they filed last week, they also filed for preliminary injunction which is a request that during the time that the case is live, the county ordinance would not be enforced against the plaintiff.
So we wait for Cuyahoga County to respond?
Yes. They can respond with an answer to the complaint, or maybe a motion to dismiss based on jurisdiction because there isn’t a legally cognizable cause of action due to the fact that it’s seeking an advisory opinion from the court. At the same time, the County will want to respond to the motion for preliminary injunction.
How seriously should we take this case?
MEYER: Whenever a nondiscrimination ordinance that protects based on gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation is challenged, we have to take it seriously. It’s something we want to be sure to defend and make sure we get good law on.
STANCLIFF: We know ADF has a budget of tens of millions of dollars. They’re huge. They’re a factory where beige suits come in on one end and lawsuits come out the other end. That’s what they do all year, 365 days a year. Another way to think about it is that ADF is in a batting cage and they are always hitting balls. And in this case, we’re the catcher. Sometimes they do get home-runs. A lot of times, it’s going to be a pop fly or a foul ball. The question is, do we still chase it? How strongly do we want to chase the ball? We don’t want to break an ankle. We don’t want to let the team down. But we also can’t let them into our space just hitting balls and getting a home-run opportunity every chance they get. Their strategy primarily is to drown us out with work. But nobody else is going to take it seriously if we don’t. We can’t even let them get the chance of hitting a home-run.
What should readers do?
STANCLIFF: In this case, readers should follow along on this case. But largely we will have fewer and fewer of these edge cases. Alliance Defending Freedom, they’re really trying to have a go at every outside angle they can. If we had the Ohio Fairness Act, we would be a lot more secure in these rights. So the Ohio Legislature needs to step up and especially now.
It’s very rare for my morale to be shaken or to even have an invitation for my morale to be shaken. But we’ve had volunteers for thousands of hours in the last couple sessions of the Statehouse. I know people have sent tens of thousands of messages to their legislators. They have made phone calls, they have sent e-mails. They have been doing everything right.
The one thing we haven’t done, to be honest, is that we haven’t written $60 million checks and we haven’t fixed up legislators summer homes in Florida. We haven’t done that. You got us. But we have literally done everything else. Today, the Ohio legislature just vacated Householder’s speakership and they will bring on someone new. And we hope that whoever they bring on has an answer to the question of when they are going to be getting to the Ohio Fairness Act and when they’re going to be legislating according to people’s wishes, because that hasn’t happened in some time.