Written by Anthony Moujaes
A federal judge has struck down North Carolina's marriage laws as unconstitutional, giving the United Church of Christ and its co-plaintiffs a monumental and historic victory for equality for all people. General Synod of the United Church of Christ et al vs. Cooper challenged the state's Amendment One for violating the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.
"Of the three marriage equality cases pending in North Carolina, it is this landmark case about religious freedom and marriage equality that has finally struck down North Carolina's unconstitutional marriage laws," said UCC General Counsel Donald C. Clark.
U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn issued his ruling late Friday, Oct. 10. The landmark lawsuit was the first instance of a national Christian denomination challenging a state's marriage statutes.
"We are thrilled by this clear victory for both religious freedom and marriage equality in the state of North Carolina,' said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a UCC national officer. "In lifting North Carolina's ban on same-gender marriage, the court's directive makes it plain that the First Amendment arguments, made by the UCC and our fellow plaintiffs, were both persuasive and spot-on. Any law that threatens clergy who choose to solemnize a union of same-sex couples, and threatens them with civil or criminal penalties, is unconstitutional."
The suit, filed in April by the UCC and a coalition of clergy, same-sex couples and religious denominations, claiming that the state's marriage laws violate the First Amendment rights of clergy and the principle of "free exercise of religion."
Under Amendment One, which passed in late 2012, same-sex couples could not legally marry in North Carolina, and clergy could be charged with a crime for officiating a marriage ceremony without determining whether the couple involved has a valid marriage license.
"The issue before this court is neither a political issue nor a moral issue. It is a legal issue and it is clear as a matter of what is now settled law in the Fourth Circuit that North Carolina laws prohibiting same sex marriage, refusing to recognize same sex marriages originating elsewhere, and/or threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional," Cogburn wrote in his opinion.
"What an exciting time to be part of the United Church of Christ," said the Rev. Nancy Ellett Allison, pastor of Holy Covenant United Church of Christ (Charlotte, N.C.) and one of the plaintiffs in the case. "Our denomination, Holy Covenant UCC and our other UCC congregations have stood with clergy and same sex couples throughout the state of North Carolina demanding marriage equality through our lawsuit challenging Amendment One. That the Honorable Max O. Cogburn, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, has struck down Amendment One and ordered the state to begin recognizing same-sex marriages is a victory for all North Carolina citizens."
Just hours before the ruling, the plaintiffs filed a motion asking Cogburn to resolve the lawsuit through an agreement between the plaintiffs and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Even though Friday's agreement by the principal parties dismissed the First Amendment claim, Cogburn's opinion recognized the implications of religious freedom in the case. "It is clear ... that North Carolina laws ... threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional," he wrote.
"We are thrilled that the judge's order specifically recognized the religious freedom implications of this case and our clergy will be able to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies as faith practices call for without fear of prosecution," said Heather Kimmel, UCC associate general counsel.
North Carolina becomes the 28th state, in addition to the District of Columbia, to recognize same-gender marriages in the United States. Weddings can begin immediately.