The United Church of Christ (UCC) is suing the state of North Carolina for the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, claiming the ban infringes on the church’s religious rights.
When in 2012 North Carolina enacted a constitutional amendment known as Amendment 1 to ban same-sex marriage, civil unions and all equivalent partnerships, it did so despite heavy resistance from the business sector, from campaign groups and a number of religious voices. At the time the United Church of Christ, which as a denominational group has almost 1 million members, stood against the ban. Now, it is fighting to have Amendment 1 overturned.
On April 28 the General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) filed a suit in the Charlotte U.S. District Court against the state of North Carolina, contending that Amendment 1 harms the Church’s religious rights. The suit, which is believed to be the first of its kind in the country, takes issue with a particular provision in Amendment 1 that makes it a crime for clergy to solemnize or bless a marriage ceremony for same-sex couples.
If a minister were to violate this provision, they could face up to 120 days in jail. More realistically, they would likely be slapped with probation or a community service order. It is believed that North Carolina is the only state in the U.S. to specifically make clergy into criminals should they recognize and bless a same-gender wedding.
As such, the lawsuit contends that Amendment 1 — which, as we discussed previously, is overreaching in a number of ways — unconstitutionally limits minsters’ choices to express their religious faith, that it does violence to the Church’s free exercise of religion and that it violates the First Amendment by restricting the right to express that faith.
The suit further contends that the law is sufficiently unclear, specifically the part about what it terms to be marriage-like ceremonies, that clergy members may fear even performing a blessing for a same-sex couple even when that blessing isn’t one intended to honor a marriage, for instance a same-gender commitment ceremony blessing.
Among the several plaintiffs in the case is Reverend Nancy Allison, a senior pastor at Holy Covenant UCC. The reverend seeks to marry two women, Lisa and Kathi, who have been together for almost 13 years. “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,” Allison is quoted as saying. “It is time to challenge an unjust law and bring greater freedom to every religious leader in North Carolina.”
Those who campaigned for the discriminatory constitutional amendment have dismissed this lawsuit out of hand: “This is sadly, and predictably, the ‘lawsuit of the week’ filed by those who want to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina, in spite of the fact that 61 percent of the voters passed the Marriage Amendment two years ago,” Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition, is quoted as saying.
However, this “lawsuit of the week” joins what now amounts to around 70 different lawsuits, a handful of them federal suits, that are working their way through the courts. It also isn’t coming from LGBT rights activists, either. This is a recognized mainstream church group that, since 2005, has affirmed same-gender marriages. For Fitzgerald to try to brush this off is as much of a mistake as it is arrogant.
What is more, there’s reason to think that this suit could be particularly appealing to the federal courts and the Roberts Supreme Court in particular, providing, that is, that the UCC can convince the courts that they have sufficient standing to sue. That aside, while religious rights are usually, and unfortunately, used in the United States to try to discriminate against LGBT people, we see here an interesting turn where a Church is being stifled from exercising its religious beliefs in favor of gay marriage.
In a very real sense, this suit is being seen as the Christian Left striking back against the way in which the Religious Right has used religion to attack LGBT civil rights. For that reason, this push back is much more than just a question of religious interpretation, it’s a larger comment on the oppressive nature of fundamentalism and how it stifles not just sexual and gender minorities, but other religious people too.
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