Together for almost 13 years, Lisa Cloninger and Kathi Smith are active members in the life of Holy Covenant United Church of Christ in Charlotte, N.C. They hope to celebrate their union before their congregation, and they hope their pastor, the Rev. Nancy Ellett Allison can perform that ceremony. But Allison faces legal consequences for doing so, because under North Carolina law it is a criminal offense to officiate a non-licensed wedding — even one for purely religious purposes.
The United Church of Christ took a bold step in support of clergy and the freedom of religion, by suing the State of North Carolina on April 28, to guarantee the protections of the First Amendment.
The denomination filed a lawsuit early Monday morning in U. S. Federal Court in Charlotte, claiming that state marriage laws violate the freedom of religion protections guaranteed by the First Amendment. The groundbreaking legal action is believed to be the first instance of a national Christian denomination challenging a state's marriage statutes.
"Lisa and Kathi have demonstrated their deep and abiding commitment to one another and to the congregation for more than a decade," Allison said. "As their pastor, I have walked with them through some dark times. Having the opportunity to now celebrate their marriage — both ceremonially and legally in the church which has nurtured them and with the Christian friends who support them — is a joyous opportunity."
"[Holy Covenant] is an integral part of our lives," Cloninger said. "We want to celebrate our marriage with this congregation and North Carolina's Amendment One limits our religious freedom to do so."
Donald Clark, the UCC's general counsel, said North Carolina's marriage laws violate the First Amendment's guarantees to free exercise of religion "because they subject our ministers to criminal sanctions for performing religious ceremonies."
"The United Church of Christ is an inclusive church of extravagant welcome, founded on the Constitution's guarantee of the free exercise of religion, and the United Church of Christ believes this freedom should be guarded, protected and defended," said the Rev. Bernard R. Wilson, chairperson of the United Church of Christ Board. "That is the reason the UCC took this legal action in North Carolina today."
In 2012, North Carolina voters approved Amendment One, which limits domestic legal unions to one man and one woman. Under state laws consistent with Amendment One, it is a misdemeanor for ministers to perform a marriage ceremony for a couple that has not obtained a license — which are not available to same-sex couples. Offenses are punishable by up to 120 days in jail and/or probation and community service. The laws also allow anyone to sue a clergy member who performs a marriage ceremony without a license and collect as much as $200 if they prevail.
"We brought this lawsuit not to make others conform to our religious beliefs, but to vindicate the rights of all faith communities to freely perform their religious rites and to affirm the equal rights of all God's people," Clark said.
Two officers of the church expressed the importance of being able to fulfill their ministerial duties and questioned why the state should interfere with that right.
"As clergy, I am called to serve God and the church with distinct responsibilities that I do not take lightly," said the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries. "I also take my responsibility as a citizen of this great nation seriously, so when the government seeks to infringe upon my religious freedom to serve the church I love, I must speak out."
"Religious freedom is part of the DNA of the United Church of Christ. The liturgical life of the church is not subject to regulation by the state," said the Rev. James Moos, executive minister of the UCC Wider Church Ministries. "The free exercise of religion doesn't privilege one faith over another. Limiting one faith practice limits all faith practices."
UCC leaders echoed a sentiment that the denomination has been a "church of firsts" throughout its history, and that the latest step in challenging North Carolina laws continues a historic commitment to freedom and equality under the law.
"It's historic. It's a move of the Holy Spirit because this issue is larger than all of us," said the Rev. Edward Smith Davis, conference minister for the Southern Conference of the UCC, which includes North Carolina. "The question is, do we keep silent in the face of inequality? If so, we will continue to contribute to the unraveling of our society. For the UCC, it is the future position of who we are in the landscape of Christianity."
The UCC was the first mainline denomination to ordain a woman, the first to ordain an openly gay pastor and the first predominantly white denomination to ordain an African American pastor. It is also the first mainline church to affirm marriage equality for all people regardless of gender.
For more information, visit ucc.org/ido.