Carol Williams-Swoope isn’t an ordained minister, nor is she a member of the LGBT community. But as a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Concord, N.C., she is one of scores of North Carolinians who believe in equality and the freedom of religion.
On what's been called "Marriage Monday," Williams-Swoope was joined by almost 2 dozen UCC advocates in North Carolina to deliver nearly 30,000 signatures for religious freedom to the doorstep of Roy Cooper, state attorney general, calling on him to cease defending the marriage laws being challenged by the UCC and other faith leaders.
"My son is gay, and the thought that I have different civil rights than he does, that’s my call to action," Williams-Swoope said. "To watch my pastor and people from my congregation have to go Washington, D.C., to get married, and we can’t be standing in support of them in our own church and be in community together as they marry, that’s another call to action."
The group delivering the petitions represent Holy Covenant UCC (Charlotte), Congregational UCC (Greensboro), United Church Chapel Hill and Umstead Park UCC (Raleigh), in addition to Trinity UCC.
Attorney General Cooper didn’t come out of his office, which is just across the street from the state capitol in Raleigh, N.C., and didn’t send an aide out to meet the group.
"So, the 16 of us grabbed a stack and carried them in and placed 13,000 copies of the petition on a table," said Williams-Swoope, former chair of the UCC Local Church Ministries board of directors. "It was beautiful. We sang ‘We are Standing in the Light of God!’"
There was also a group of about 25 people assembled outside the attorney general’s office. "The people that showed up were from different UCC congregations that I invited, and some other people. There was someone from a Baptist church, and a retired Lutheran pastor. So it was a very good, supportive crowd," Williams-Swoope said.
Cooper has stated publicly that he supports marriage equality, but his office is arguing against the lawsuit in federal court. There are several examples where attorneys general at the state and federal levels have opted not to defend laws that prohibit same-gender couples to marry. The federal government went so far as to tell the U.S. Supreme Court last year that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and should be struck down.
"I stand with the nearly 30,000 individuals that signed these petitions to urge Attorney General Cooper to protect the religious freedoms and equal rights of all North Carolinians," said Williams-Swoope.
The petition reads: "North Carolina's marriage laws criminalizing pastors for blessing same-sex relationships are blatantly unconstitutional. As an official sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, including the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom, you must decline to defend these laws in federal court."
In 2012, North Carolina voters approved Amendment One, which limited legal marriages in the state between one man and one woman. Under the state’s laws, it is a Class 1 misdemeanor for a minister to perform a marriage ceremony for a couple without a marriage license – and those licenses are not available to same-sex couples. A Class 1 misdemeanor is punishable by up to 120 days in jail, and/or probation and community service.
In the lawsuit, General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper, filed on April 28, the UCC and other co-plaintiffs claim that North Carolina's laws violate the principle of "free exercise of religion" by criminalizing clergy for solemnizing any marriage without a marriage license from the state, and restricting the freedoms of religion and expressive association guaranteed in the First Amendment. The plaintiffs now include the Alliance of Baptists, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and a host of Episcopalian, Jewish, Baptist, Unitarian, and UCC clergy.
"North Carolina marriage laws clearly violate the principle of ‘free exercise of religion’ upon which the United Church of Christ – and this country – is built," said the Rev. Geoffrey Black, general minister and president of the UCC. "We are delivering more than the signed petitions of nearly 30,000 individuals; we are standing up for the rights of all Americans that deserve their full constitutional rights of religious freedom and equal protection under the law."