Church group challenges North Carolina marriage law

by Andrew Branch
Posted 4/30/14, 04:04 pm

A coalition led by the United Church of Christ (UCC) is challenging North Carolina’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage with a first-ever approach in a federal lawsuit. The lawsuit, filed Monday, claims the ban violates the clergy members’ religious freedom.

The ministers say they want to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies in their congregations, but North Carolina law outlaws them. The UCC and a dozen clergy members and same-sex couples are listed as plaintiffs in the suit.

Sixty-one percent of North Carolina voters affirmed the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman in 2012. The law doesn’t bar the UCC in North Carolina from endorsing same-sex relationships.

North Carolina law states that no minister “shall perform a ceremony of marriage between a man and woman, or shall declare them to be husband and wife,” without a marriage license. Doing so qualifies as a Class 1 misdemeanor.

“In this case, it’s about the free exercise and the chilling threat of that statute as it’s currently written for ministers who want to exercise their religious beliefs that these marriages are legitimate,” said Luke Largess, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. The UCC has endorsed same-sex marriage since 2005. Largess told me that UCC’s two-part case is unique in battling not only the same-sex marriage ban, but “this odd statutory construct here that on its face makes it a crime.”

Executive minister J. Bennett Guess said UCC ministers in North Carolina must decide “whether to provide those services or break the law.”

The Heritage Foundation’s marriage and religious liberty expert Ryan Anderson disagreed. He said the North Carolina law simply defines the process of having the state recognize a marriage.

“This law isn’t talking about ministers celebrating marriages in churches for solely religious purposes, but about ministers who are acting as agents of the state to celebrate a state-recognized marriage,” Anderson said. “But, again, there’s no religious liberty right to have the relationship of your choice recognized as a marriage by the state.”

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition, decried the UCC for taking a biblically distorted “sexual revolution” to the courts. “This is sadly, and predictably, the ‘lawsuit of the week’ filed by those who want to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina,” Fitzgerald said. “Moreover, it’s both ironic and sad that an entire religious denomination and its clergy who purport holding to Christian teachings on marriage would look to the courts to justify their errant beliefs.”

The UCC lawsuit comes just weeks after the American Civil Liberties Union launched a new legal assault. It asked a federal judge to rule quickly to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage to facilitate the marriages of gay people who are ill and might not live until the lawsuit is addressed. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Andrew Branch

Andrew is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C. He was homeschooled for 12 years and recently graduated from N.C. State University. He writes about sports and poverty for WORLD. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewABranch.

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