“By regulating who ministers can and cannot marry, and criminalizing them if their faith traditions skew from the law, the UCC claims that North Carolina’s marriage laws interfere with a minister’s rights to marry whomever they choose – as is their right within the denomination.”

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UCC Church Sues State of North Carolina

Written by Anthony Moujaes
May 1, 2014

There are about 70 marriage equality cases moving through the judicial system in the United States, but the lawsuit brought by the representative body of the United Church of Christ is distinct. What makes the case unique is that the UCC is standing on the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, efforting to protect the rights of clergy and the principal of freedom of religion, a first in the wave of lawsuits across the country challenging laws regarding same-sex marriage.

“This isn’t just another one of the 69 cases bringing equal protection and due process challenges,” said Heather Kimmel, associate general counsel for the denomination.

In addition to the lawsuit, the UCC and other plaintiffs are asking the U.S. District Court to grant a preliminary injunction to temporarily stop North Carolina from enforcing the law before the case is heard. It would allow pastors in the state to perform the religious ceremonies they feel called to perform until the case is decided.

“In asking for the injunction, we are asking for the court to say the state cannot enforce these laws,” Kimmel said. The UCC is one of three groups of plaintiffs in General Synod of the UCC v. Cooper — a dozen North Carolina clergy from Christian, Jewish and Unitarian faiths, and LGBT couples wishing to marry are also part of the lawsuit.

Kimmel outlined some of the key claims raised by the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Monday, April 28, and what the roadmap might look like for the case this summer. In the 29-page document, the UCC claims that North Carolina’s marriage laws violate the freedom of religion protections under the First Amendment, as well as the freedom of association that, according to the Supreme Court, is implied in the First Amendment.

The lawsuit names 11 defendants, which include North Carolina’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, and several register of deeds and district attorneys in the state.

“The defendants will have a chance to object to our motion for preliminary injunction, and the UCC will have an opportunity to reply to that objection,” Kimmel said.

The defendants have 15 days from the date of filing to file their objection to the preliminary injunction. The North Carolina attorney general has asked for a stay in another North Carolina lawsuit that challenges the marriage laws on equal protection and due process grounds. His argument for a stay is based on a legal challenge of Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage that will be argued in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes both Virginia and North Carolina. A U.S. District Court judge already ruled that Virginia’s ban is unconstitutional. If that decision is affirmed, the North Carolina court might apply that ruling to declare Amendment One unconstitutional. The Fourth Circuit could rule on the Virginia case by the end of the summer, but until then, attorneys for the plaintiffs would like an immediate injunction instead of waiting.

“We’re hopeful our judge will rule in favor of a preliminary injunction before the summer, and not stay the case,” Kimmel said. “But it is hard to speculate on how long before a judge will do anything.”

There are 33 states that limit marriage to one man and one woman, though lawsuits challenging marriage laws in nine of those states will be heard in U.S. appeals courts this year. North Carolina’s restrictions, however, went an extra step by threatening to criminalize clergy for performing weddings – legal or ceremonial – without a valid marriage certificate.

Amendment One, the name of North Carolina’s marriage law that voters passed in 2012, limits domestic legal unions to one man and one woman. Under state laws consistent with Amendment One, it is a misdemeanor for ministers to perform a marriage ceremony for a couple that has not obtained a license — which are not available to same-sex couples. Offenses are punishable by up to 120 days in jail and/or probation and community service.

In its argument, the UCC relies on two Supreme Court cases in particular to show that North Carolina’s marriage laws are unconstitutional.

In a recent case from 2012, the court ruled that governments may not interfere with an “internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.” But by regulating who ministers can and cannot marry, and criminalizing them if their faith traditions skew from the law, the UCC claims that North Carolina’s marriage laws interfere with a minister’s rights to marry whomever they choose – as is their right within the denomination.

The Supreme Court also ruled that the First Amendment protects the “right to associate with others in pursuit of a wide variety of political, social, economic, educational, religious, and cultural ends,” and that governments may not infringe on that freedom through “intrusion into the internal structure or affairs of an association.” The case, Boy Scouts of Am. v. Dale in 2000, established that the Boys Scouts can legally exclude gay members through their right to associate.

“We’re using that anti-LGBT decision to say that our beliefs allow our clergy to perform same-sex marriage, but the North Carolina laws infringe on bringing people together for the purpose of celebrating those beliefs,” Kimmel explained.

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