North Carolina pastors reflect, plan next steps in groundbreaking suit for religious freedom
Written by Emily Schappacher April 29, 2014
The Rev. Nancy Allison, the Rev. Geoffrey Black, the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, and the Rev. Edward Davis, at a news conference announcing the UCC's lawsuit against the state of North Carolina at Holy Covenant UCC in Charlotte on April 28.
As word of the United Church of Christ's lawsuit against the state of North Carolina and its marriage laws floods news and social media outlets, the case's plaintiffs are only beginning to take it all in. So far, responses and reactions have been more positive than negative, and the case's advocates are encouraged by the idea that support for marriage equality is growing in the UCC and beyond.
The UCC filed a lawsuit Monday, April 28 in the U.S. District Court in Charlotte, N.C., arguing that the state's marriage laws violate the First Amendment rights of clergy and the principle of the "free exercise of religion."
"I have received a mixed bag of responses, which is always encouraging, and you have to be loving, caring, and pastoral to them all, even if they disagree," said the Rev. Edward Davis, conference minister of the Southern Conference of the UCC and a plaintiff in the case. "Some responses have been, 'Why are you catering to only 10 percent of the church?' But we have to understand that during the Civil Rights movement, the people who were advocated for were only 10 to 12 percent of the nation. So it's OK to advocate for the one."
The Rev. Nathan King, pastor of Trinity UCC in Concord, N.C., is also a plaintiff in the case, along with a same-gender couple from his church. While most of the feedback King has received has been positive – from "words to thanks to tears of gratitude" – he knows the fight isn't yet over. King, who is president of the Western North Carolina Association of the UCC, expects discussion from area pastors who are not as supportive of the legal action taken by the UCC at the association's board meeting on Saturday, May 3. He also expects protestors who have picketed his church in the past because of its support of the LGBT community to return this Sunday and in the coming weeks.
"Our church is located right on the sidewalk, so we are an easy target for protestors who can be just inches away from our property," King said. "But we have a policy in place to deal with opposition, and will have conversations with the Concord Police Department to get them on alert."
Others, like the Rev. Nancy Ellett Allison, pastor of Holy Covenant UCC in Charlotte, N.C., which hosted yesterday's news conference, have faced far less opposition. Holy Covenant and Allison have received a slew of phone calls, emails and social media messages congratulating and thanking the church for taking such a bold stance on a controversial issue. Allison plans to feed off this momentum when she travels to Washington, D.C., this weekend to officiate the weddings of six same-sex couples, who are unable to be married in their home states.
"I am in a lucky position that my congregation is excited and pleased," Allison said.
The Rev. Joe Hoffman, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Asheville, N.C., is also encouraged by the volume of positive feedback he has received. Aside from a few "I need to learn how to read the Bible" and "We're all going to hell" emails, Hoffman, another plaintiff in the case, said the backlash would have been much more hostile 10 years ago.
"By and large, it's all been pretty positive," he said. "Some people have even written me and said things like, 'I am a straight man and you're telling me that gay people don't have the same rights as I have?' So there's been an educational piece to it as well."
On April 30, First Congregational UCC will host a meeting of the Campaign for Southern Equality, an organization that works to promote LGBT equality in the South and an active supporter of the UCC's lawsuit, which will be open to anyone who would like more information or has questions about the case. But for now, Hoffman says that the legal process needs to be set into motion, as court dates and schedules are determined. He adds how grateful he is for the backing of the UCC and for the media attention the lawsuit has received so far.
"We are stepping out and doing something new," Hoffman said. "When I knew the national staff was behind it, that kind of support is huge."
King agrees that the support and leadership of the denomination as a whole is a comforting, and integral, part of this process.
"I don't know if people can really understand it or not, but it is kind of a heavy thing to carry in North Carolina," King said of his state's discriminatory laws. "Knowing that our denomination is supporting us and other Open and Affirming churches is, to me, very reassuring."