Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a three-part series discussing legal challenges to North Carolina’s “Amendment One,” which was passed in May 2012 and banned same-sex marriages in the state.
For many, the ban on same-sex marriage is directly linked to conservative Christians’ ideology on the matter. However, the Holy Covenant United Church of Christ (UCC) in Charlotte, North Carolina has taken a stance that supports the right of same-sex marriage. The self-described “progressive Christian church” has filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. The complaint, which lists multiple local government officers as defendants, states that “Amendment One,” the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, infringes upon their right to practice their religion and is therefore unconstitutional in nature.
The UCC has been joined by a number of ministers, pastors, and rabbi from all areas of North Carolina, including Raleigh pastor Nancy Petty. Petty explained her decision to join the lawsuit, saying “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.”
Another crux of the complaint focuses on the ability of clergy members to perform marriage ceremonies in their houses of worship. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 51-6 states that “no minister, officer, or any other person authorized to solemnize a marriage under the laws of this State shall perform a ceremony of marriage […] until there is delivered to that person a license for the marriage.” Additionally, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 51-7 says that if a clergy member marries a couple without a license they are guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor and must pay a $200 fine. This law is of the utmost concern to the men and women who have filed the claim since they are directly affected by the ability (or lack thereof) to marry a same-sex couple in their respective churches.
There are many groups that have spoken out against North Carolina’s marriage laws; however this complaint has attracted a lot of attention because of the identity of the plaintiffs and the grounds on which it was filed. The clergy members who are bringing the action are making a religious claim that at first blush might seem counterintuitive. The religious leaders are advocating for the very people that many in their faith have voted to deny the privilege of marriage. Yet, the issue will have to play out in the court system. No matter what the decision of the initial court may be, this case is very likely to be appealed.