Written by Anthony Moujaes
The landmark lawsuit General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper continues to grow in interest and support, as three religious organizations are joining the UCC's petition for freedom of religion under the First Amendment. The Alliance of Baptists, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists all signed on as plaintiffs in the legal challenge, claiming that North Carolina’s marriage laws violate their religious freedom.
This, as defendants in the case file a motion for a stay, three weeks after asking for an extension to reply to the lawsuit. The motion asks the court wait to hear the UCC suit until after a ruling by in another federal court case in Virginia. The plaintiffs are opposed to any delay.
"The loss of First Amendment freedoms for even a minimal period of time unquestionably constitutes irreparable harm," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a national officer of the UCC and executive minister of Local Church Ministries. "Today, clergy are still at risk of being jailed for performing marriage ceremonies without a state-issued marriage license. By formally joining the lawsuit as plaintiffs, both the Alliance of Baptists and the Central Conference of American Rabbis join the United Church of Christ in recognizing the unconstitutionality of North Carolina’s marriage laws, regardless of faith tradition."
A fellowship of Baptist churches with 65,000 members in 130 congregations, the Alliance of Baptists formed in 1987 in Charlotte, N.C., and has a partnership in mission and ministry with the UCC that dates back to 2003.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, a group of 2,000 Reform rabbis, is the oldest and largest rabbinic organization in the country. The Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists is a group of 90 Baptist churches founded in 1993 that welcomes and affirms all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
"By the joining the lawsuit in North Carolina, we are living deeply into our Christian values and offering a clear, Baptist voice for justice and religious liberty," said the Rev. Mike Castle, newly-elected president of the Alliance of Baptists and senior pastor at Harmony Creek Church, a joint UCC-Alliance of Baptists congregation in Kettering, Ohio. "It is also important that we stand with the United Church of Christ, our ecumenical partner in mission and ministry, in this bold action."
The lawsuit was filed on April 28 in U.S. District Court in Charlotte. The UCC is one of three groups of plaintiffs in the case — several North Carolina clergy from Christian, Jewish and Unitarian faiths, along with LGBT couples wishing to marry, are also part of the lawsuit. This week, nine individual clergy from various faith traditions also joined the case as plaintiffs.
North Carolina voters approved Amendment One in 2012, which limited a domestic legal union to a covenant between a man and woman. Under state laws consistent with Amendment One, it is a misdemeanor for a minister to perform a marriage ceremony for a couple that hasn't obtained a license, and marriage licenses are only issued to same-gender couples.
The UCC, which broke legal ground by becoming the first national denomination to challenge a state’s marriage laws, claims in the lawsuit that North Carolina's laws violate the principle of "free exercise of religion" upon which the church is built, and restrict the freedoms of religion and expressive association guaranteed in the First Amendment.
The 11 defendants in the case, which include Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general, and several county registrars and district attorneys, filed their motion for a stay in the case on Monday morning. They requested that that case be put on hold until the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals makes its decision in a marriage equality case in Virginia – a federal challenge to that state’s marriage laws based on the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. The Fourth Circuit Court has jurisdiction in North Carolina and Virginia.
"We oppose the attorney general's effort to put off to an unspecified date in the future the court's consideration of relief for citizens whose first amendment interests are either threatened or in fact being impaired today," said Donald C. Clark, general counsel for the UCC.
Cooper has already asked for a stay in another North Carolina lawsuit that challenges the marriage laws on the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process grounds.
But the UCC’s case also involves a First Amendment claim, and Clark believes North Carolina lacks a compelling legal argument.
"Encroachments on the liberties of religion and expression may only be justified by a showing of state interests that is paramount – one of vital importance. And the burden is on the government to show the existence of such interests," Clark said. "Attorney General Cooper and the other defendants have made no such showing. The speculation they offer in support of their request is weak tea."
By June 10, North Carolina must also respond to the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction – a request that North Carolina's marriage laws be suspended until the case is decided. The plaintiffs must respond to the state’s motion for a stay by June 13.
For more information, visit ucc.org/ido.