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