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May 2, 2014

Marriage ban violates religious freedom, says UCC suit

Asheville, N.C.--Turning the tables on arguments traditionally used by opponents of same-sex marriage, a federal suit seeking to strike North Carolina’s marriage ban amendment on religious freedom grounds was filed on April 28.

Two years ago, North Carolina was the last of 30 states to pass such a measure denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But the state also has a law penalizing a minister who marries any couple with no license.

The United Church of Christ and clergy from five denominations argue that the ban amendment violates their freedom of religion.

The UCC, which has its denominational headquarters in Cleveland, gives its congregations leeway to decide on the issue of marriage. The clergy would like to perform same-sex religious marriages, but cannot do so because of the law.

The UCC passed a resolution in favor of equal marriage rights in 2005.

The United Church of Christ General Synod is joined in the suit by clergy from UCC, Lutheran, Unitarian Universalist, Baptist and Jewish congregations and six same-sex couples. They are represented by attorneys from two firms in the case, which hinges not only on equal protection arguments, but also First Amendment grounds.

“The United Church of Christ has a rich history of boldly joining faith and action,” said UCC president and general minister Rev. Geoffrey A. Black. “We filed this landmark lawsuit against the state of North Carolina to protect the religious freedom of our ministers, one of the essential freedoms of all Americans.”

Opponents of same-sex marriage often cite their own freedom of religion in arguing against being “forced” to accept such marriages, raising the specter of their clergy being sued for not performing same-sex nuptials. However, even in places where same-sex marriage is legal, there have been no lawsuits against clergy refusing to perform weddings for same-sex couples.

“As senior minister, I am often asked to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples in my congregation,” said Rev. Joe Hoffman of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville, one of the plaintiffs. “My denomination . . . authorizes me to perform these ceremonies. But Amendment One denies my religious freedom by prohibiting me from exercising this right.”

Attorney Jonathan Martel added, “The core protection of the First Amendment is that government may not regulate religious beliefs or take sides in religious controversies. 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.”

Under North Carolina law, a clergy member who performs a marriage ceremony for a couple without a marriage license can be charged with a class one misdemeanor, carrying a penalty up to 120 days in jail.









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