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.