CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A coalition of clergy members is challenging North Carolina’s constitutional ban on gay marriage with an unusual approach in a federal lawsuit: They say it violates their religious freedom.
The clergy members said in the lawsuit filed Monday that they’d like to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies in their congregations, but they can’t because of the “unjust law.”
Their attorney, Jake Sussman, says it’s the only case to make First Amendment religious freedom claims among the more than 60 marriage equality cases pending in the nation’s state and federal courts.
“North Carolina’s marriage laws are a direct affront to freedom of religion,” said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister with the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “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.”
But in North Carolina, clergy are often faced with a troubling decision — “whether to provide those services or break the law,” Guess said. “That’s something no clergy member should be faced with.”
Along with the United Church of Christ, which has more than 1 million parishioners, a dozen clergy members and same-sex couples who want to marry were listed as plaintiffs. The defendants included North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and several county district attorneys as well as five registers of deeds.
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman with the attorney general’s office, said officials there hadn’t seen the lawsuit yet.
Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick said she was shocked to be named as a defendant. Her office handles marriage licenses.
“It’s ridiculous for any registry to be sued over same-gender marriage, which is a matter of state law, not county policy. Only the legislature or the courts can change the law. Our job as county administrators is to apply the law as it is, just as we will apply the law if it changes.”