Despite court delay, support mounts for UCC freedom of religion lawsuit
Written by Anthony Moujaes
May 19, 2014

As public attention and awareness of the lawsuit General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper grows, so does encouragement from ecumenical partners and individual support for the issue.

The Alliance of Baptists passed a resolution to formally support the United Church of Christ, and almost 30,000 people have come in favor of the religious freedom issue, signing a pair of online petitions calling on North Carolina to overturn its same-sex marriage ban.

"The Alliance of Baptists has always had a strong commitment to religious liberty," said the Rev. Michael 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 has been a part of our founding Covenant from the beginning and the clear religious liberty violations are enough to cause Alliance of Baptists people to want act and stand with the United Church of Christ in their legal efforts."

Defendants in the lawsuit against the state of North Carolina filed a motion on Thursday, May 14, asking a federal court for a 30-day extension to respond to the lawsuit and preliminary injunction, with North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper citing "complex legal issues" and "significant public interest." The UCC argues that North Carolina's marriage laws, including Amendment One, 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.

UCC leaders agree that the case has significant implications, but attorneys for the denomination and other plaintiffs plan to object to the state's request for more time.

"The General Synod of the United Church of Christ will oppose the defendants' request for an extra 30 days to respond to our claims" said Donald C. Clark, UCC general counsel. "As the Attorney General himself recognized, our claims have important implications for the American public with respect to the ability to freely exercise and express one's religious beliefs. We believe our claims deserve to be decided without unnecessary delay so that the First Amendment's protections can be restored to the residents of North Carolina."

The Alliance of Baptists, a fellowship of Baptist churches with 65,000 members in 130 congregations, issued a resolution of support for the UCC case during its annual meeting in early May. The group formed in 1987 in Charlotte, N.C., and has a partnership in mission and ministry with the UCC dating back to 2003.

The author of the resolution, the Rev. J. Lee Hill, pastor of Christian Fellowship Congregational Church (UCC) of San Diego, has standing in both denominations and said the resolution was a "no-brainer."

"Standing on the side of justice is what we do — it's in our DNA as people of the United Church of Christ and as people of the Alliance of Baptists," he said. The Alliance of Baptists also support marriage equality.

"The Alliance of Baptists also have a number of clergy in North Carolina, and acting on this 'Resolution of Support' is just one way we can be supportive of our clergy who were being targeted unfairly in that state for punitive action on purely religious grounds," Castle added.

Public support doesn't end there. The UCC has collected 28,866 online signatures in more than two weeks through online petitions looking to overturn North Carolina's marriage laws.

To date, 15,934 people on Faithful America have told Cooper not to defend the state's same-sex marriage ban, while another 12,932 signatures on Care2 demand the repeal of the marriage laws by the state legislature.

"My partner and I have been together for [six-and-a-half] years. We have a new baby girl," writes North Carolina resident Jeanie Rykaceski. "I would love to be her legal parent! Please, we are humans first and should enjoy the same rights as others."

Many national media outlets in the United States have reported on the case, from dailies such as the New York Times, to news magazines like TIME, to television networks NBC and CNN, and to online publications like the Huffington Post.

Even in the weeks after the lawsuit was filed, North Carolina media remained interested, with the Raleigh News and Observer publishing a Letter to the Editor written by the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC.

The UCC will respond to North Carolina's motion for a 30-day extension sometime this week. For more information, visit ucc.org/ido.

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