United Church of Christ sues over NC ban on same-sex marriage

mgordon@charlotteobserver.comApril 28, 2014 

Ministers from Raleigh, Charlotte and Asheville helped launch the country’s first faith-based challenge to same-sex marriage bans, claiming in a lawsuit filed Monday that North Carolina’s laws block them from practicing their religion.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court by the United Church of Christ, marks the first time an entire denomination has joined the marriage battle. UCC, headquartered in Cleveland, has more than 1.1 million members and 5,100 local churches. North Carolina is home to more than 24,000 members and 155 churches.

The plaintiffs say state prohibitions, including a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2012, violate their First Amendment right of freedom of religion. And they are asking the federal courts in the Western District of North Carolina to overturn the ban as quickly as possible.

“North Carolina’s marriage laws are a direct affront to freedom of religion,” said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, the UCC’s executive minister.

The sacraments of baptism and communion are open to all, said the Rev. Nancy Allison, pastor of Charlotte’s Holy Covenant United Church of Christ and one of the plaintiffs in the case. “So should all God’s children be able to receive marriage.”

The lawsuit was announced during a news conference at Holy Covenant. It becomes the 66th legal challenge to marriage bans now in the courts, three of them in North Carolina. But it is the first to attack same-sex marriage bans on religious grounds, said Charlotte attorney Jake Sussman, lead counsel for the group.

Joining the denomination and clergy as plaintiffs are same-sex couples in Charlotte, Asheville, Concord and Huntersville. They say the state laws violate their equal-protection and due-process rights under the 14th Amendment.

Cathy Fry and Joanne Marinaro of Charlotte say they’ve been together for 28 years. Two months ago, they were approached by the Rev. Nancy Kraft, their longtime pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, to join the lawsuit.

They say they have resisted the urge to get married in another state because they want Kraft to do the ceremony while they’re surrounded by their family and spiritual community.

“We’re waiting on North Carolina,” Marinaro said.

State law says it is a misdemeanor crime for ministers to perform a marriage ceremony without having a marriage license for a couple.

“By denying same-sex couples the right to marry and prohibiting religious denominations even from performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, the State of North Carolina stigmatizes same-sex couples, as well as the religious institutions and clergy that believe in equal rights,” the suit says.

The state’s 2012 constitutional ban, widely known as “Amendment One,” passed with 61 percent of the vote. The margin of victory was largely driven by social conservatives and conservative Christians. Many of them believe that the Bible reserves marriage for a man and a woman.

“This lawsuit does not change the fact that God created men and women differently,” said David Hains, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. “The fruits of that difference are marriage and the continuance of the human race through children.”

NC Values Coalition executive director Tami Fitzgerald, who helped lead a coalition of Christian and conservative groups supporting the state’s 2012 constitutional amendment, said the lawsuit is an attempt to void the will of voters who backed traditional marriage.

“This is sadly, and predictably, the ‘lawsuit of the week’ filed by those who want to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina,” Fitzgerald said. “Moreover, 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.”

The clergy and couples filing Monday’s lawsuit say it is not their goal “to compel other faiths to conform to their religious beliefs.” Instead, they say they want “to assert their right to freely perform religious services and ceremonies consistent with their beliefs and practices, and to extend the equal protection of the laws to all of God’s children.”

North Carolina’s other two legal challenges to the state’s marriage laws have been filed in federal court in Greensboro. Because Greensboro is a different judicial district, those cases cannot be consolidated with the complaint filed in Charlotte on Monday.

In the end, all three may take a back seat to a Virginia case scheduled to go before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in two weeks.

The three-judge panel will hear a case against Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban. If the judges strike down that ban, as many legal experts expect them to do, they also could erase similar bans in West Virginia and the Carolinas, which are part of the Judicial Fourth Circuit. A ruling is expected by fall.

The Rev. Nancy Petty of Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church joined in the suit. Other North Carolina clergy include a Charlotte rabbi and Asheville ministers Joe Hoffman of First Congregational UCC and Mark Ward of the city’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

The Associated Press contributed

Gordon: 704-358-5095

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