The national congregation of the United Church of Christ (UCC) filed suit against North Carolina Monday, claiming that the state’s restrictions on same-sex marriage violate the church’s free exercise of religion. Amendment One, the state legislation that pretty much criminalized gay marriage, says that clergy found guilty of officiating a marriage for a couple that doesn’t have a legal state license could face up to 120 days in jail.
Amendment One caught a lot of flak in 2012, the year North Carolina became the 32nd state to enact an outright ban on same-sex marriage. Domestic violence prevention groups and the ACLU said that it interfered with wills, child custody laws, employer benefits, and domestic violence protections on top of gay marriage.
It seems that Amendment One was designed to screw over as many North Carolinians as possible at once. Now UCC, which was founded by pilgrims in the 1600s, says the law is a direct violation of the First Amendment right to religious freedom.
'I am not advocating for or against marriage equality. But I have to stand with my clergy when their rights are being violated.'
Burlington-based Reverend Edward Davis, conference minister of the Southern Conference of UCC, told VICE News that the lawsuit isn’t necessarily about throwing down moral support for gay marriage, but about protecting freedom of religion.
“It is not a mandate that every church has to be affirming,” Davis said. “I am not advocating for or against marriage equality. The North Carolina conference has perhaps the most conservative wing and the most progressive wing — and so there’s always this tension. But I have to stand with my clergy when their rights are being violated.”
North Carolina is the only US state that criminalizes clergy members for officiating same-sex unions. Davis told VICE News that UCC filed suit only in North Carolina because the threat of incarceration is all too real there. “For the other 10,000 clergy in the UCC, it’s not an issue.”
The text of the lawsuit does offer firm support for same-sex couples, however, claiming that the current law “stigmatizes same-sex couples, as well as the religious institutions and clergy that believe in equal rights.”
Some of the additional plaintiffs in the suit are gay congregants themselves, such as Betty Mack and Carol Taylor, a couple of over 41 years who are now in their 70s. Mack and Taylor argue that they would have got hitched at their Asheville church if it weren’t illegal for their minister to marry them.
“Our faith teaches us to be obedient to the law,” Davis told VICE News, “But this erodes the freedom of others and the moral fabric of our society. We can’t operate under doubt and fear, but with compassion and love.”
'Celebrating same-sex marriages in our church is one way, among countless others, that we live out our Christian faith.'
In states, and other countries, where same-sex marriage is illegal, clergy still officiate religious commitment ceremonies without penalty — as long as they don’t call it marriage.
Reverend Ann Kansfield, of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Church and also an ordained UCC pastor, told VICE News. “I do know that LGBT-friendly clergy will often perform a religious wedding in states that do not recognize legal marriage equality.”
Kansfield’s church is affirming and able to conduct legally binding marriages for same-sex couples.
“The board of the church believes that God can call two people of the same gender to live in covenantal marriage with one another,” Kansfield said. “We came to this decision following significant study of scripture and prayer. Celebrating same-sex marriages in our church is one way, among countless others, that we live out our Christian faith.”
This isn’t the first time a church has challenged the US government for the right to conduct same-sex weddings. In fact, it was a church that started it all. In 1968, Reverend Troy Perry founded Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Los Angeles and immediately conducted the nation’s first public same-sex marriage. In 1970, Perry filed a lawsuit that MCC says was the world’s first legal challenge seeking the right of same-sex couples to marry.
The UCC lawsuit is touted as the first state challenge to a gay marriage ban brought by a national church. UCC was the first mainline Protestant denomination to ordain an African-American pastor — way back in 1785. The church also claims that in 1853, their pastor Antoinette Brown was “the first woman since New Testament times” to be ordained as a Christian minister.
“Spirituality is a vital part of what it means to be fully human, and being able to practice one's faith is an important part of living a life of abundance,” Kansfield said. “Many LGBT people are people of deep faith, and being a part of a faith community provides people with a deeper and more meaningful connection to God and one another.”
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