New lawsuit says anti-gay marriage laws violate First Amendment religious freedom

Federal lawsuit filed in North Carolina is first to cite religious freedom arguments in fighting anti-gay marriage ban

Originally published: April 28, 2014, 9:36 a.m.
Updated: April 28, 2014, 12:11 p.m.

Clergy and national officers with the United Church of Christ join with other local clergy and their legal counsel at a press conference announcing their lawsuit on Monday morning.

Clergy and national officers with the United Church of Christ join with other local clergy and their legal counsel at a press conference announcing their lawsuit on Monday morning.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The United Church of Christ (UCC), other local clergy and same-sex couples announced this morning that they have filed suit against the State of North Carolina and its anti-LGBT constitutional amendment, citing First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion.

At a press conference this morning at Holy Covenant United Church of Christ, Pastor Nancy Ellett Allison said North Carolina’s laws discriminating against same-sex couples violate her church’s and congregants’ religious freedoms.

“North Carolina’s laws prohibiting same-gender marriage designate some citizens as unfit for the blessings of God,” Allison said. “We reject that notion. As all of God’s children are welcome to receive the sacraments of communion and of baptism, so all of God’s children should be able to receive the sacrament of holy union and marriage.”

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In May 2012, North Carolina voters passed a constitutional amendment banning recognition of same-sex marriages and civil unions. The measure passed with 61 percent of voters in favor. The constitutional ban, in addition to other state marriage laws, violate the religious freedoms of same-sex couples and the ministers that seek to officiate at their LGBT congregants’ weddings.

UCC General Minister and President Geoffrey Black traveled to Charlotte for the lawsuit’s filing, which he said is a stand for the freedom of religion.

“We believe very strongly that this freedom must be protected,” Black said. “As an inclusive church we are sensitive to any laws that create inequality in our society. When we determined the State of North Carolina was restricting the free exercise of religion, we felt compelled to take lawsuit.”

The church’s lawsuit was filed today in Charlotte. Of all marriage cases nationwide — now 66 separate lawsuits — the church and its legal team believe their lawsuit is the first to cite the First Amendment and a religious freedom argument in fighting an anti-LGBT amendment on marriage.

The case is the third lawsuit in North Carolina challenging the state’s anti-LGBT amendment. Two other cases are pending in a Greensboro federal court. A case challenging Virginia’s anti-LGBT constitutional amendment is expected to be heard by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in May. That ruling could affect North Carolina’s pending lawsuits. Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper has said he will defend the state’s laws despite personally acknowledging his support for marriage equality.

The plaintiffs in the case include the UCC and Holy Covenant, as well as other faith leaders and same-sex couples from Charlotte, Asheville, Concord and Huntersville. They are represented by Tin Fulton Walker & Owen and Arnold & Porter LLP.

Luke Largess, a partner at Tin Fulton Walker & Owen, said the case brings four separate claims — two equal protection and due process claims similar to other marriage lawsuits and two new First Amendment claims.

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Current state law technically makes it a misdemeanor, Largess said, for ministers to conduct marriage ceremonies without licenses. It is also illegal for ministers — who are deputized by the state to perform weddings — to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

“There is no event in the life of a church that is more holy and happy than a wedding but in North Carolina if a minister presides over the wedding of a same-sex couple commits a misdemeanor,” Largess said. “It’s that criminalization of that marriage rite that we challenge in this lawsuit.”

Largess added, “These ministers and these couples have the right to express and hold their religious beliefs. [They have the right] to join together as a group to express their beliefs and act out their beliefs.”

Largess also said many of the religious “holy union” services often held for same-sex couples are, in fact, illegal under state law.

Violations of the law are punishable by up to 120 days in jail and/or probation and community service. In addition, the laws allow anyone to sue the minister who performs a marriage ceremony without a license and collect up to $200 if they prevail.

Couples involved in the case say they want the right — as other couples have — to be married in the presence of their faith communities in ceremonies performed by their faith leaders.

“We can’t imagine anyone else officiating our wedding and we can’t imagine getting married without the presence of our faith community,” said Cathy Fry, who attends Holy Trinity Lutheran Church with her wife Joanne Marinaro. The two have been a couple for 28 years and have a 23-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son.

“Holy Trinity is our church family…it’s loving and caring congregation has always nurtured and cared for our children and our relationship,” said Marinaro. “We want to get married right here in North Carolina and right here in our home church.”

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer is a staff writer for QNotes. He previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015.

15 Replies to “New lawsuit says anti-gay marriage laws violate First Amendment religious freedom”

  1. I have never felt so gratified when I heard of the filing of this suit. I have been posting for a year that when these amendments were passed people just stomped on my 1st Amendment rights. The 1st Amendments clearly states “prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion (or) impeding the free exercise of religion. See my church marries gays, lesbians, and their families. Did I miss the word of “majority’s religion”? I think not.

  2. I applaud The United Church of Christ for their actions and I personally thank you for recognizing us and me as full members of the body of Christ

  3. While I am a supporter of gay marriage, and any other voluntary contract, I find this challenge to the law to be based entirely on the wrong argument. Amendment One is a religious law and challenging it on religious grounds will yield nothing but irrational squabbles over religious peculiarities and legitimate religious claims.

    The proper grounds for a legal challenge is that of universal individual rights; specifically, right to contract and equal protection under the law.

    The state, I would argue, may not interfere with an individual’s right to enter into voluntary romantic contracts between free adults, and when they choose to do so, the state may not impose special categories for unequal treatment.

    The solution is a complete separation of marriage and state. The only proper role of government is to protect individual rights and in its banning gay marriage it does the opposite: it violates the rights of individuals who use their judgment to determine what is in their self-interest. The government’s role in marriage, as with any other contract, should be limited to enforcing contracts and settling disputes.

    Furthermore, the protection of rights should not be subject to consensus or majority opinion. A majority or faction cannot vote to violate the rights of another. This subjective way of determining which rights are to be protected and which are to be violated is precisely what this nation was established to confound.

    1. This is about Religious Liberty.

      A growing number of Religious institutions are in support of Marriage Equality. They & their Congregation have just as much right to fight for their Religious Liberties that Include Marriage Equality!

  4. I’m liking this. I am proud to go to a Reconciling (Open and Affirming) United Methodist Church and am pleased to see my fellow Christians believing as we do. I am especially pleased that we are finally that we are using our faith in our litigation for a just, inclusive, and Christian cause of the freedom to marry. Praise God and
    Thank You! to the UCC for their lawsuit.

  5. While the UCC is a major part of this suit it is not the only plaintiff. Other ministers, and a rabbi (me), and a Jewish couple are also plaintiffs.
    Just sayin’!
    🙂
    Honored to be part of it and hoping that we make a difference!

  6. *screams a yay to the world and jumps up and down*
    Such a cool moment in history–and being in the South too! 🙂
    Living in history, who would’ve thought.

  7. It’s good to see the UCC engaging in the age old fight for the freedom to affirm the precious act of one man forcefully tearing the anus of another and then ejaculating into his poop. These guys are real heroes and, believe me, I cannot think of anything more important than that.

    1. Do you really think so little of the institution of marriage? Is there no value in a committed romantic relationship if the partners aren’t having sex; is sex the most important, critical, defining characteristic of marriage (which exists exclusively in marriage)?

      You’re right, though, obviously there’s no such thing as a sexual or romantic relationship between two women. The lack of a penis is just too insurmountable a barrier.

    2. This one has a vivid imagination. You can see the closeted gay screaming out from behind his words. Straight people could care less to go off on tangent like that on something that doesn’t have anything to do with them.

      1. What I wrote was crude, and perhaps rude; but it certainly didn’t require any imagination. One needs only a basic familiarity with human anatomy.

        By the way, although I oppose same-sex “marriage” in no uncertain terms, I also oppose a law telling clergy, UCC or otherwise, what services they can and cannot perform privately in the context of their own religious gatherings. That is a violation of the free exercise clause. Rather, the law should have simply defined what the state of NC would and would not recognize as a legal marriage and left it at that.

  8. For this exact reason, our family left our life-long UCC Church. We will not be a part of a movement that does not honor marriage as God put forth in his holy word. Just because it is made law does not make it right.

    1. So… just to be clear.
      If in the horrific event you are raped, I presume you will be marrying your rapist (as per biblical marriage law).

      1. It was never mentioned that sex= marriage. Rape is violence.

        1. Marriage is a covenant between a man and woman and God.

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