April 28, 2014 | by Michael K. Lavers
United Church of Christ files lawsuit against N.C. marriage ban

North Carolina, State Capitol, Raleigh, Gay News, Washington Blade

North Carolina State Capitol by Jim Bowen via Wikimedia Commons.

The United Church of Christ and a group of clergy and same-sex couples on Monday filed a federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

The lawsuit — which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina — argues for the first time the marriage amendment violates the religious beliefs of denominations and congregants who support the recognition of gay nuptials and clergy who want to perform them. Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, president of the United Church of Christ, and Rev. Nancy Kraft of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte are among the plaintiffs who attended a Charlotte press conference.

“As a 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, who is a plaintiff along with Diane Ansley and Cathy McGaughey, two of his congregants who have been together for 14 years. “My denomination — the United Church of Christ — authorizes me to perform these ceremonies, but Amendment One denies my religious freedom by prohibiting me from exercising this right.”

The United Church of Christ, which has nearly a million members, in 2005 approved a resolution endorsing marriage rights for same-sex couples.

North Carolina voters in 2012 approved a constitutional amendment that not only bans same-sex marriage, but recognition of any other gay and lesbian relationships.

Attorney General Roy Cooper last October announced he personally supports marriage rights for same-sex couples, but would defend the gay nuptials ban. The Democrat’s announcement came after Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger accepted marriage licenses from 10 same-sex couples.

“The core protection of the First Amendment is that government may not regulate religious beliefs or take sides in religious controversies,” said Jonathan Martel of Arnold & Porter LLP, a law firm with offices in D.C. and other cities that is representing the plaintiffs alongside the Charlotte-based Tin Fulton Walker. “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.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina earlier this month filed a lawsuit on behalf of three married same-sex couples who are seeking legal recognition of their unions in the Tar Heel State. The ACLU in 2012 filed a federal lawsuit against North Carolina’s second-parent adoption ban — the case now directly challenges the state’s marriage amendment.

Equality North Carolina and the South Carolina Equality Coalition on April 18 filed an amicus brief with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., in a lawsuit that challenges Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban.

U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen in February struck down the commonwealth’s gay nuptials ban.

The 4th Circuit next month is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the Virginia case. Its outcome could impact marriage rights for same-sex couples in North Carolina because it is among the states that fall under the federal appeals court’s jurisdiction.

“I am excited to see this challenge to Amendment One move forward,” said Equality North Carolina Executive Director Chris Sgro, who attended the Charlotte press conference. “We fought hard to defeat Amendment One, and I am glad to see the harms it has caused highlighted.”

Same-sex couples in neighboring Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and other states have filed lawsuits seeking marriage rights since the U.S. Supreme Court last June found a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

16 Comments
  • Kirk Laubenstein

  • (humorous) I've always wanted to be married, but I hope I never get the nuptials. It sounds like I'd have to put an ointment on it and delay the honeymoon until it clears up.

  • Willie Edward Redd

  • I find it amazing that a Christian church will spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to prevent gay marriage, but they could be spending this ( church ) money on important things like feeding hungry children, helping homeless shelters, helping people who can not afford their medications or food. I think God himself would rather help others than HAATE others. I think a lot of these organized religions should look at themselves and relate to this message. Going to an organized church that is full of hate does not makes you a Christian as much as sitting in someone's garage makes you a car! Your actions make you Christian, feed the hungry, help the poor, help the homeless and do not spend a lot of money on FIGHTING your fellow man!

  • Brenda Sakers Ober

    Your so right bryan

  • Um, you did see that the churches in this article are fighting FOR gay marriage, right?

  • I havent' read the article yet but I thought UCC was liberal.

  • Bryan you are so right!! I hate that the churches and the governments feel they can control who people marry.

  • Did you not read the article? They're fighting FOR gay marriage. Sure the money could be better spent helping those who are in more critical condition but they are still fighting for freedom and I think that counts for something. Kinda pisses me of that you automatically assume they're fighting against gay marriage. Not helping our image.

  • just so u all understand, ucc is fighting for gays rights, they were one of the first churches to allow gay pastors

  • Is there really anyone in the world that can control who they love, and the extent of that love? I wish I could, it would have saved me from a lot of the pain suffered throughout my lifetime. But on the other hand, I sure am glad I got the joy out of all the loves of my life.

  • Bryan may be referring to the NC Values Coalition (and other anti-gay groups that claim religious grounds). In response to this lawsuit, its executive director, Tami Fitzgerald – who led a coalition of Christian and conservative groups supporting the state’s 2012 constitutional amendment banning marriage equality – said, “This is … to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina [and] 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.” I’m sure Ms. Fitzgerald is glad that her particular sect allows women to speak their minds!

  • well said bryan well said amen to that !!!!

  • John-Manuel Andriote

    How refreshing to see a Christian church fighting to defend equality for LGBT people because doing so is consistent with their faith. What a contrast to the alleged christians who fight for the right to hate, proving to the entire world they have no clue what the founder of their faith stood for.

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