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N.C. Clergy Bring Legal Challenge to Amendment One, Citing Religious Freedom

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Religious Leaders Seek the Right to Wed Same-Sex Couples in their Congregations

Contact: Aaron Sarver, Communications Director, Campaign for Southern Equality, 773.960.2857 (c), aaron@southernequality.org

Asheville, N.C. (April 28, 2014) – This morning a federal challenge to Amendment One was filed in the Western District of North Carolina on behalf of the United Church of Christ (UCC) as a national denomination, clergy from across faith traditions and same-sex couples. The case challenges the constitutionality of marriage laws in North Carolina - including Amendment One - that ban marriage between same-sex couples and make it illegal for clergy to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples within their congregations. Clergy plaintiffs seek the religious freedom to perform these ceremonies and same-sex couples seek the freedom to marry. The plaintiffs are represented by the law firms of Tin Fulton Walker & Owen and Arnold & Porter LLP.

This case, General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Cooper, opens a new front in marriage equality litigation: it is the only case to bring 1st Amendment religious freedom claims among the 66 marriage equality cases pending in courts nationally. “In addition to bringing 14th Amendment claims under equal protection and due process, this lawsuit introduces a 1st Amendment claim that the marriage ban in North Carolina violates the right to the free exercise of religious beliefs by denominations, clergy, and congregants who believe that same-sex marriages are theologically valid and want to perform marriage ceremonies,” says Jake Sussman a partner at Tin Fulton Walker & Owen and lead counsel in General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Cooper.

“The core protection of the First Amendment is that government may not regulate religious beliefs or take sides in religious controversies,” says Jonathan Martel, a partner at Arnold & Porter LLP. “Marriage performed by clergy is a spiritual exercise and expression of faith essential to the values and continuity of the religion that government may regulate only where it has a compelling interest.”

Growing numbers of faith traditions, including those represented among the plaintiffs, bless the marriages of same-sex couples. “As senior minister, I am often asked to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples in my congregation. My denomination - the United Church of Christ - authorizes me to perform these ceremonies. But Amendment One denies my religious freedom by prohibiting me from exercising this right,” says Rev. Joe Hoffman, Senior Minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville and a plaintiff in the case.

The UCC is a mainline Protestant denomination with nearly 1 million members nationally. The first UCC church in North Carolina was founded in 1748 and there are now more than 150 UCC congregations across the state. President and general minister of the UCC Rev. Geoffrey A. Black says, “The United Church of Christ has a rich history of boldly joining faith and action, and we filed this landmark lawsuit against the State of North Carolina to protect the religious freedom of our ministers -- one of the essential freedoms of all Americans." A full list of plaintiffs in General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Cooper include the following parties:

  • The General Synod of the United Church of Christ;
  • Rev. Nancy Ellett Allison, Ph.D, Holy Covenant United Church of Christ; Lisa Cloninger and Kathleen Smith, a couple of 12 years, who attend Holy Covenant UCC;
  • Rabbi Jonathan Freirich; Joel Blady & Jeff Addy, who seek to marry;
  • Rev. Joe Hoffman, First Congregational United Church of Christ (Asheville); Diane Ansley and Cathy McGaughey, a couple of 14 years who attend FCUCC;
  • Rev. Nathan King, Trinity United Church of Christ (Concord); Shauna Bragan and Stacy Malone, who attend Trinity UCC;
  • Rev. Nancy Kraft, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (Charlotte); Cathy Fry and Joanne Marinaro, a couple of 28 years, who attend Holy Trinity;
  • Rev. Nancy Petty, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church;
  • Rev. Robin Tanner, Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church (Charlotte); and
  • Rev. Mark Ward, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville; Carol Taylor and Betty Mack, a couple of 41 years, who attend UUC of Asheville.

Last summer the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor that the federal government must recognize marriages of same-sex couples. General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Cooper joins the ranks of two cases filed by the ACLU in North Carolina’s Middle District that ask federal courts to act quickly to overturn Amendment One. In recent months, federal courts in Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, Texas, Kentucky have found bans on state marriage to be unconstitutional. Public opinion in North Carolina is no less dynamic than the national legal climate. Recent polling shows that 62 percent of voters under the age of 30 in North Carolina support the freedom to marry. In addition, just 34 percent of all North Carolina voters now believe there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple's relationship.

Supporting documents and profiles of the plaintiffs can be found at http://www.amendmentonechallenge.org.

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The Campaign for Southern Equality, an Asheville, NC, based group that promotes LGBT rights in the South, is coordinating a public education campaign accompanying the case. http://www.southernequality.org

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