UCC denomination sues North Carolina for violating religious freedom, urges marriage equality in landmark case

The United Church of Christ (UCC) made history this morning by becoming the first major Christian denomination to file a lawsuit against a state government. The UCC General Synod has asserted that North Carolina's ban on marriage equality is a violation of UCC clergy's free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.

At present, it's a misdemeanor crime in North Carolina for a clergy member to officiate a couple's marriage if that couple is lesbian, gay, or bi, because they cannot obtain a state-sanctioned marriage license. The crime is punishable by up to 4 months of jail time, community service, and probation. The state constitutional law that bans marriage equality is known as Amendment One.

North Carolina is the only state in the nation that criminalizes clergy performing LGBT-inclusive marriages with misdemeanor charges.

In a press release, the UCC explained its case: "This limitation on rights of ministers and others is in conflict with the UCC General Synod's 'Equal Marriage Rights for All' resolution adopted in 2005. This resolution affirms 'equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage."

"The United Church of Christ believes in advocating for justice," Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess, a national officer of the denomination, who is also gay, said in a statement. "We believe that the UCC is called to be a prophetic church. God calls the church to speak truth to power. We are standing up for the freedom of religion, and to protect the rights of our ministers to do their jobs in faith."

Jonathan Martel, a partner at Arnold & Porter LLP, told Equality North Carolina, "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."

President and general minister of the UCC, Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, added, "The United Church of Christ has a rich history of boldly joining faith and action, and we filed this landmarks lawsuit against the State of North Carolina to protect the religious freedom of our ministers --- one of the essential freedoms of all Americans."

Joining the UCC as plaintiffs in the case, known as General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Cooper, are several individuals: Rev. Nancy Ellet Allison, PhD (Holy Covenant United Church of Christ), and her congregants Lisa Cloninger and Kathleen Smith (couple of 12 years); Rabbi Jonathan Freirich, Joel Blady and Jeff Addy; Rev. Joe Hoffman (First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville), Diane Ansley and Cathy McGaughey (couple of 14 years); Rev. Nathan King (Trinity United Church of Christ in Concord), Shauna Bragan and Stacy Malone; Rev. Nancy Kraft (Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte), Cathy Fry and Joanne Marinaro (couple of 28 years); Rev. Nancy Petty (Pullen Memorial Baptist Church); Rev. Robin Tanner (Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church in Charlotte); and Rev. Mark Ward (Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville), Carol Taylor and Betty Mack (couple of 41 years).

Check out ucc.org/ido to learn more and use #GetEngagedNC to spread the word.