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Topics In the News
United Church of Christ Challenges North Carolina's Marriage Laws
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 04/29/14
Last updated on: 04/29/14
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Rev. Geoffrey Black, General Minister and President.

On April 28, 2014, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging North Carolina's ban on same-sex marriage and other marriage statutes, arguing that they violate the First Amendment rights of clergy and the free exercise of religion. The suit is believed to be the first-ever by a religious denomination to contest a state's anti-gay marriage laws on religious grounds.

The lawsuit particularly targets a statute that makes it a criminal offense for clergy to solemnize weddings without a state-issued marriage license (which North Carolina's ban on same-sex marriage prohibits from being issued to same-sex couples). The suit argues that the ban on same-sex marriage violates the equal protection clause of the constitution and that the statute criminalizing the solemnization of weddings violates the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.

As Michael Paulson reports in the New York Times, Donald C. Clark Jr., general counsel of the United Church of Christ, said, "We didn't bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices."

Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, said on the denomination's website, "Amendment One and other marriage laws in North Carolina are the only laws in the country that not only limit a domestic legal union to a covenant between a man and woman, but also make 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 a minister performing a religious ceremony not intended to result in a legal marriage."

The UCC is among the most gay-friendly denominations in the United States. Its activism on behalf of gay people dates to the early 1970s, when local congregations began describing themselves as "Open and Affirming." In 1985, the denomination as a whole encouraged all its congregations to welcome persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities into the full life and ministry of the church.

The denomination began ordaining openly gay clergy in 1972 and in 2005 endorsed marriage equality. In 2006, Dallas's Cathedral of Hope, which had previously been affiliated with the Metropolitan Community Church, voted to join the United Church. It became the denomination's largest congregation in the South Central region.

In the suit filed on April 28, the United Church of Christ is joined by a Lutheran priest, a rabbi, two Unitarian Universalist ministers, a Baptist pastor, and several same-sex couples. They contend that the state's marriage law "represents an unlawful government intervention into the internal structure and practices of plaintiffs' religions."

The defendant in the case, North Carolina's attorney general, Roy Cooper, has previously said he believes his state's ban on same-sex marriage should be lifted, but nevertheless pledged to defend the state's laws "when legal arguments exist." On Monday, his spokeswoman, Noelle Talley, said her office had no comment on the United Church of Christ case.

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, said this in response to the lawsuit: "In their zeal to pile on to deny the freedom to marry, North Carolina officials also put in place a measure that assaulted the religious freedom that they profess to support by penalizing and seeking to chill clergy that have different views. The extent to which North Carolina went to deny the freedom to marry wound up additionally discriminating on the basis of religion by restricting speech and the ability of clergy to do their jobs."

The video below features Rev. Geoffrey Black announcing the denomination's lawsuit.

In the video below, the denomination's communications director, Ann Poston, describes the United Church of Christ as a "Church of Firsts."

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