United Church of Christ files landmark lawsuit against North Carolina to protect First Amendment rights of clergy
Written by Connie Larkman
April 28, 2014
The General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) has filed suit against the State of North Carolina, arguing that the state's marriage laws violate the First Amendment rights of clergy and the principle of "free exercise of religion."
In what is believed to the first-ever challenge by a national Christian denomination of a state's marriage laws, the UCC filed the lawsuit Monday morning, April 28, in U.S. District Court in Charlotte, N.C.
Under Amendment One, which passed in late 2012, it is a crime in the State of North Carolina for clergy to officiate a marriage ceremony without determining whether the couple involved has a valid marriage license. United Church of Christ ministers, interested in conducting a religious marriage ceremony for same-gender couples, could face up to 120 days of jail and/or probation and community service if found guilty, since North Carolina marriage laws define and regulate marriage as being between only a man and a woman. As lead plaintiff in this lawsuit against the State, the United Church of Christ asserts that these laws are unconstitutional and violate clergy's First Amendment rights.
"The United Church of Christ is proud to defend the religious freedoms upon which this nation was founded," said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC. "It is unfortunate that, even today, laws are designed to treat gay and lesbian people unequally. In its efforts to restrict gay marriage, the State of North Carolina has restricted one of the essential freedoms of our ministers and of all Americans."
North Carolina's state marriage laws are the only laws in the country that not only limits a domestic legal union to a covenant between a man and woman, but also makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor for a minister to perform a marriage ceremony for a couple that hasn't obtained a license. The UCC believes that this prohibition and penalties also apply to clergy performing a religious ceremony not intended to result in a legal marriage, infringing on their freedom of religion.
The Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess, a national officer of the denomination and an openly gay man, said, "The United Church of Christ believes in advocating for justice. We believe that the UCC is called to be a prophetic church. God calls the church to speak truth to power. We are standing up for the freedom of religion, and to protect the rights of our ministers to do their jobs in faith."
The United Church of Christ is joined by several individual plaintiffs in the case, including UCC minister the Rev. Nancy Ellett Allison, senior pastor at Holy Covenant UCC in Charlotte, N.C. Allison is seeking to marry church members Lisa and Kathi, partners of nearly 13 years and active members of Holy Covenant. "When gay and lesbian congregants come to me asking that I perform their wedding, I want to be able to offer them both the blessing of Holy Covenant United Church of Christ and that of the state of North Carolina," said Allison. "It is time to challenge an unjust law and bring greater freedom to every religious leader in North Carolina."
Limiting the freedoms of ministers and others conflicts with the UCC General Synod's "Equal Marriage Rights for All" resolution, adopted in 2005. This resolution affirms "equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage."
For more information ucc.org/ido