By Sam Killenberg
The United Church of Christ, along with a group of Charlotte-based ministers, have launched a lawsuit challenging the state of North Carolina’s ban on gay marriage. The ministers, a group that contains mostly Christian pastors and one rabbi, support same-sex marriage and claim that the state’s ban prevents them from practicing their religious beliefs.
“The core protection of the First Amendment is that government may not regulate religious beliefs or take sides in religious controversies,” says Jonathan Martel, a Washington, D.C., attorney helping with the case. “Marriage performed by clergy is a spiritual exercise and expression of faith essential to the values and continuity of the religion that government may regulate only where it has a compelling interest.”
The suit is the first lawsuit that argues that the marriage ban violates the beliefs of congregants and pastors who wish to recognize and perform same-sex marriages.
“As a senior minister, I am often asked to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples in my congregation,” said Rev. Joe Hoffman of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville, who is a plaintiff. “My denomination — the United Church of Christ — authorizes me to perform these ceremonies, but Amendment One denies my religious freedom by prohibiting me from exercising this right.”
The United Church of Christ (UCC) is the first denomination to join the legal battle over gay marriage. The UCC has more than 1.1 million national members, 24,000 of which live in North Carolina.
“The United Church of Christ is proud to defend the religious freedoms upon which this nation was founded,” said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC. “It is unfortunate that, even today, laws are designed to treat gay and lesbian people unequally. In its efforts to restrict gay marriage, the State of North Carolina has restricted one of the essential freedoms of our ministers and of all Americans.”
The lawsuit is the 66th legal challenge to state marriage bans now in courts and the third such challenge in the state of North Carolina. The state constitutional ban, known as “Amendment One”, passed a 2012 referendum with 61% of the vote. The amendment restricts legal unions in N.C. to marriage between a man and a woman. N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, personally supports same-sex marriage rights, but says he will defend the state law.
Currently, ministers performing same-sex marriages in the state of North Carolina can face misdemeanor charges and up to 120 days in jail. Despite that, several ministers have held the ceremonies in protest.
“I can’t imagine the law enforcement of North Carolina coming after a clergy person for doing their job, but if I were to be arrested for this, I would gladly face those arrest charges,” said Nancy Allison, the pastor of Holy Covenant United Church of Christ. “I can do no other than move forward under my convictions.”