First Amendment

North Carolina clergy bring religious freedom lawsuit against state’s same-sex marriage ban

A federal lawsuit filed yesterday in the Western District of North Carolina puts a new spin on pro-same-sex marriage litigation: religious freedom. In it, several individual clergy members and the General Synod of the United Church of Christ argue that state laws banning same-sex marriage unconstitutionally penalize them for practicing their faith.

The First Amendment claims made in General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper sets it apart from numerous other same-sex marriage lawsuits pending across the United States. The plaintiffs set up a website that counts 66 such cases nationwide, including two filed by the Amercan Civil Liberties Union in the Middle District of North Carolina, the Asheville Citizen-Times reports.

The plaintiffs include the General Synod of the UCC; a Lutheran pastor, a reform Jewish rabbi, a Unitarian Universalist Church minister and a Baptist pastor. They also include several same-sex couples who are congregants of those clergy and would like to be married in their home churches or temple. Diane Ansley, one of the couple plaintiffs, said at a press conference that she’d like to be married to her partner of 14 years in the church where her parents were married 60 years ago, Reuters reported.

However, the complaint (PDF) says, North Carolina law doesn’t permit clergy or individuals to express their faith in this way. That’s because North Carolina has both a constitutional amendment and a statute making same-sex marriages invalid. Furthermore, North Carolina General Statute §51-6 makes it a crime for members of the clergy to perform marriages for couples who do not have a license.

As a result, the complaint says, state law forbids the plaintiffs from practicing their religions, in violation of the free exercise and free association clauses of the First Amendment. The plaintiffs also make the due process and equal protection arguments more common in same-sex marriage lawsuits after last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor.

“By depriving the Plaintiffs of the freedom to perform religious marriage ceremonies or to marry, North Carolina stigmatizes Plaintiffs and their religious beliefs, and the State relegates the Couple Plaintiffs to second-class status,” it says.

The defendants include North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and multiple county registrars of deeds and district attorneys. The New York Times reported that Cooper says he believes the state’s same-sex marriage ban should be ended but that he has pledged to defend state laws.

The plaintiffs are represented by the law firms of Tin Fulton Walker & Owen and Arnold & Porter.

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