Million-Member Church Fights for Same-Sex Marriages in Test Case

Monday, 28 Apr 2014 12:36 PM

By Drew MacKenzie

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The United Church of Christ has joined forces with local religious leaders and same-sex couples to file a lawsuit challenging a North Carolina constitutional amendment banning gay marriages.

In the groundbreaking test case, the faith-based suit claims the 2012 amendment defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman, known as Amendment One, violates the religious beliefs of observers who support gay nuptials and clergy who want to perform them, according to the Charlotte Observer.

The Rev. Geoffrey Black, president of the United Church of Christ, and the Rev. Nancy Kraft of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte announced the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court of North Carolina, at a press conference in Charlotte on Monday, The Washington Blade reported.

"As a senior minister, I am often asked to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples in my congregation," said the Rev. Joe Hoffman of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville, N.C.

"My denomination authorizes me to perform these ceremonies, but Amendment One denies my religious freedom by prohibiting me from exercising this right."

The United Church of Christ suit, which also includes a local rabbi, marks the first time an entire denomination has joined the controversial same-sex marriage battle, the Observer said. The church, based in Cleveland, has 1.1 million members in the United States and 5,100 local churches, with 24,000 members and 155 churches in North Carolina.

The plaintiffs include several same-sex couples as well as pastor Nancy Allison of Holy Covenant UCC in Charlotte; Robin Tanner, pastor of Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church; Rabbi Jonathan Freirich of Temple Beth El; and Nathan King, senior pastor at Trinity Reformed UCC in Concord, N.C.

"The core protection of the First Amendment is that government may not regulate religious beliefs or take sides in religious controversies," says Jonathan Martel, a Washington, D.C., attorney helping with the case.

"Marriage performed by clergy is a spiritual exercise and expression of faith essential to the values and continuity of the religion that government may regulate only where it has a compelling interest."

The lawsuit states that it's not attempting "to compel other faiths to conform to their religious beliefs." But it adds that the plaintiffs want "to assert their right to freely perform religious services and ceremonies consistent with their beliefs and practices, and to extend the equal protection of the laws to all of God's children."

The lawsuit continues, "By denying same-sex couples the right to marry and prohibiting religious denominations even from performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, the state of North Carolina stigmatizes same-sex couples, as well as the religious institutions and clergy that believe in equal rights."

In 2012, North Carolina voters approved Amendment One with 61 percent of the vote, driven by Christian conservatives in the state, according to the Observer.

State Attorney General Ray Cooper vowed last year to fight for the amendment through the courts, even though he personally supports the marriage rights of same-sex couples, according to the Blade.

Although it's currently the 66th legal challenge in the nation's courts to laws that bar same-sex nuptials, Charlotte attorney Jake Sussman, lead attorney in the case, says it's the first one to fight gay marriage bans on religious grounds.

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