Awaiting religious freedom, North Carolina couples bus to Washington to wed
Written by Connie N. Larkman
April 30, 2014

The Rev. Nancy Ellett Allison, pastor of Holy Covenant UCC in Charlotte, N.C.

Most United Church of Christ ministers quickly master multitasking. Case in point: the Rev. Nancy Ellett Allison, pastor of Holy Covenant UCC in Charlotte, North Carolina. This week, she participated in a landmark UCC lawsuit challenging North Carolina's marriage laws, hosted a media conference that focused the national spotlight on her congregation and is preparing for a road-trip to Washington, D.C. to lead an interfaith ceremony, wedding six same-sex couples who are banned from marrying at their home places of worship. The bus leaves Friday, May 2, at 6 a.m.

"Ministering to the HC congregation takes many different shapes," said Allison. "Since about a third of our congregation identify as gay or lesbian, advocating for marriage equality has always been an important ministry."

Allison -- a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit filed in Monday, April 28 in Charlotte by the United Church of Christ, challenging North Carolina statutes that make it a crime for ministers to perform religious ceremonies for couples not granted a state marriage license -- has long worked to help couples in her congregation find a way to wed.

In 2011, Allison, and local colleagues Rabbi Judy Schindler from Temple Beth-El and the Rev. Robin Tanner of the Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church, took seven couples to Washington, D.C. for a group wedding, which included a lesbian couple from Holy Covenant. Lynn Helms and Laura Murphey got engaged in 2002, and were parenting a 7-year old son at the time they were able to legally wed.

"Lynn and I were dedicated to one another long before the wedding," said Murphey. "We took legal precautions to make sure our medical, financial, and parental wishes would be honored," which included Laura being sued for joint custody so that Lynn could have a "legal" relationship to Will.

"It was time consuming and frustrating," said Murphey, "considering our straight friends and family didn't have to go through the same red tape. I am excited about this lawsuit and that Nancy, again, steps up to fight on our behalf."

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the federal government must recognize marriages of same-sex couples, Allison and her interfaith partners decided that another group wedding was in order. After months of preparation, the joint service involving six couples, including one from Holy Covenant, takes place Saturday, May 3.

Photo by Patrick Schneider

"Welcoming folks of all kinds into our congregation has stretched my thinking and broadened my spirit," said Allison. "As I experience couples rejected by the clerks at the Register of Deeds offices, I share in their deep sorrow and the pain that always accompanies rejection. As I listen to couples in counseling situations, I know that their deep love and commitments parallel the kind of commitments my husband and I and all other straight couples also share. I am far more sensitive to language issues and speaking the language of inclusion than ever before."

The group, leaving for our nation's capital early Friday morning, will pick up their marriage licenses that afternoon before an evening Shabbat service at a D.C. synagogue. The wedding will be Saturday night at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, with the clergy and the newlyweds returning to Charlotte by bus on Sunday afternoon.

"We have come a long way as a nation in acknowledging gay/lesbian marriages over the last three years," said Murphey. "Marrying in D.C. was an amazing adventure, but having to travel to another state to legally marry seems so unfair and for that marriage not to be acknowledged in North Carolina is pure injustice."

Seventeen states allow gay marriage, and federal judges have struck down bans in Michigan, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia. North Carolina's ban on same-sex unions was approved by voters in 2012.

"Even though we are legally married in D.C., there is no reason anyone here has to recognize that," said Lynn Helms. "We are surrounded by an amazingly supportive gay/lesbian community, as well as some wonderful straight allies. In that circle, we are not treated any differently than any other married couple; but if you go outside that circle, we are at risk. I know that the law would not make people accept us, but it would certainly guarantee us the rights that our parents and married friends can so easily take for granted."

And on Sunday, should there be protesters outside that church circle because of the publicity the UCC lawsuit brings, many of their fellow congregants and their like-minded friends will be standing with them.

"We will probably hire off duty police for Sunday morning," said Allison. "If a protester were to disrupt the service shouting out, etc., our accompanist will immediately begin to play "Amazing Grace" and the choir will lead the congregation in standing and singing while we deal with whatever needs to be dealt with – hopefully in the most non-violent of manners!"

This UCC suit, which claims that the North Carolina law violates the right to the free exercise of religious beliefs by denominations, clergy and congregants who believe that same-sex marriages are theologically valid, is the only case to make First Amendment religious freedom claims among the more than 60 marriage equality cases pending in the nation's state and federal courts. All involved believe the argument will stand up in court.

"I respect the capacity each individual has to interpret scripture in ways that nurture their spirit and soul," said Allison. "I would ask that they respect my freedom to do the same!"

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Ms. Connie N. Larkman
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