Clergy To The Rescue: United Church Of Christ Challenges North Carolina’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban

This UCC lawsuit is an important development because it serves as a reminder that not all Christian clergy are against same-sex marriage, and it shows that these bans on same-sex unions don’t actually “protect” clergy from being forced to perform marriage ceremonies that they do not support.

The Religious Right tends to view faith from a single narrow perspective, which explains its vociferous opposition to same-sex marriage.

Despite the horror stories Religious Right groups like to spread, no cleric in America has ever been compelled to officiate at a same-sex marriage. The First Amendment gives houses of worship the power to decide who qualifies for sacraments and religious ceremonies.

But what about the flipside? What about those ministers who may actually feel obligated by their faith to marry same-sex couples?

Some of those clergy are now standing up for their rights.  

This week, the United Church of Christ (UCC) filed a federal lawsuit that challenges North Carolina’s ban on gay marriage. While multiple courts are already considering the constitutionality of marriage restrictions in many states, the UCC’s challenge is unique because it argues that clergy have a religious freedom right to perform same-sex ceremonies.  

“North Carolina’s marriage laws are a direct affront to freedom of religion,” the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister for the United Church of Christ, told the Associated Press. “We feel that it is important that any person that comes into community life of a United Church of Christ congregation be afforded equal pastoral care and equal opportunity to religious services that clergy provide.”

The marriage ban is a result of Amendment One, which Tar Heel State voters approved in 2012. As in many states that forbid same-sex unions, North Carolina’s amendment limits the definition of marriage to a contract between one man and one woman.

But unlike other states, North Carolina’s provision says any minister who performs a same-sex marriage is a criminal. Indeed, marrying a couple who do not have a state-issued marriage license is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a potential punishment of probation and/or community service for someone with no prior convictions.

In its lawsuit, the UCC argues that North Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban “limit[s] ministers’ choices, violate[s] the principle of ‘free exercise of religion’ upon which the church is built, and restrict[s] the freedoms of religion and expressive association guaranteed in the First Amendment.”

Of course the Religious Right and its allies don’t quite see things that way. Tami Fitzgerald, head of NC Values Coalition, which led the push for the same-sex marriage ban, hypocritically complained that people who don’t share her beliefs are forcing their ideas on others. She did not like that one bit.

“This is sadly, and predictably, the ‘lawsuit of the week’ filed by those who want to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina,” Fitzgerald told the AP.

She added, “Moreover, it’s both ironic and sad that an entire religious denomination and its clergy who purport holding to Christian teachings on marriage would look to the courts to justify their errant beliefs.”   

This UCC lawsuit is an important development because it serves as a reminder that not all Christian clergy are against same-sex marriage, and it shows that these bans on same-sex unions don’t actually “protect” clergy from being forced to perform marriage ceremonies that they do not support. The U.S. Constitution already offers that sort of protection, so in reality the bans do something else: They restrict the rights of same-sex couples as well as clergy who believe that their faith does not allow for discrimination.

The UCC is filing this case at the right time. State bans on same-sex marriage have been falling like dominoes ever since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year. 

This legal challenge is an important reminder to the Religious Right that not all Christians share its narrow vision of Christianity. Many Christians support same-sex marriage on the basis of faith, just as many oppose it for the same reason.

The Religious Right, however, doesn’t actually care about the rights of anyone who doesn’t agree with it, but fortunately the Constitution does. Hopefully it will only be a matter of time before North Carolina’s discriminatory marriage provision ends up in the trash can of history.