UCC First Church to Sue State Over Gay Marriage Ban

The United Church of Christ filed a federal lawsuit today challenging a North Carolina constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. Also party to the lawsuit are other clergy and same-sex couples. The Washington Blade reports:

The lawsuit — which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina — argues 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.

The story quotes Jonathan Martel, a lawyer with Arnold & Porter, saying “The core protection of the First Amendment is that government may not regulate religious beliefs or take sides in religious controversies. 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.”

Update: Matt Comer, editor of QNotes, covered the press conference announcing the UCC lawsuit. He reports that Pastor Nancy Ellett Allison at at Holy Covenant United Church of Christ said:

 “North Carolina’s laws prohibiting same-gender marriage designate some citizens as unfit for the blessings of God. 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.”

He also quotes Luke Largess, a partner at Tin Fulton Walker & Owen saying that current state law makes it a misdemeanor for ministers to conduct marriage ceremonies without licenses; it is also illegal for them 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.”