In a surprising twist, a group of clergymen filed suit in North Carolina challenging state laws that make it illegal for them to perform wedding ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples within their congregations. The clergymen represent the United Church of Christ and belong to various Baptist, Lutheran and Unitarian congregations.
The liberal denomination of approximately 1 million members is the first in the United States to challenge a same-sex marriage ban on grounds of religious freedom. All these years, religious conservatives have used the same argument to prohibit gay and lesbian marriages. On April 28, the clergymen decided to file a federal challenge to Amendment One, a recent addition to the state’s constitution that prohibits clergymen from recognizing or performing same-sex marriages or civil unions, citing threat to religious freedom.
The United Church of Christ was the first denomination in the country to ordain an openly gay pastor in 1972 and it was also the first to endorse the fledgling movement in 2005 so that civil marriage between same-sex individuals could be permitted.
The suit demands that the federal courts in North Carolina strike down the ban, which was passed by voters earlier. It argues that the ban restricts clergy choices and breaches the principle of “free exercise of religion” by compelling clergymen to minister only part of the public. Many same-sex couples as well non-United Church of Christ clergy members showed support for the suit.
“By preventing our same-sex congregants from forming their own families, the North Carolina ban on same-sex marriage burdens my ability and the ability of my congregation to form a faith community of our choosing consistent with the principles of our faith,” said Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh.
Under the ban, a clergyman cannot perform a marriage ceremony for a couple that does not have a civil marriage license because it qualifies him for Class 1 misdemeanor. Additionally, the law allows just about anyone to sue a clergyman who may have carried out such a ceremony without a license.