Colette M. Jenkins

The Cleveland-based United Church of Christ on Monday became the first religious denomination to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of state laws that ban same-sex marriage.

Filed in U.S. District Court in Charlotte, the lawsuit contends the North Carolina laws defining and regulating marriage as being between a man and woman restrict UCC ministers from performing their religious duties and, therefore, are unconstitutional.

“The state of North Carolina has criminalized a minister that performs a religious ceremony without a license. We believe it is a violation of the First Amendment Right to exercise religious freedom and felt we had to take action,” said the Rev. Bernard Wilson, chairman of the UCC’s board of directors. “This isn’t about same-sex marriage. This is about the state prohibition of the free exercise of religion, and we believe all religious organizations should support this action.”

Wilson and other denominational leaders held simultaneous news conferences on Monday morning in North Carolina and Cleveland to explain their position. They say North Carolina laws prohibit gay couples from obtaining a marriage license. Without a state-issued marriage license, pastors cannot legally perform weddings. If they do, they can face misdemeanor charges that carry a maximum sentence of 120 days in jail.

The denomination, known for being inclusive and diverse, adopted its Equal Marriage Rights for All resolution on July 4, 2005. It affirms “equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender” and declares that “government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage.”

The mainline Protestant denomination also adopted a resolution in 1985 that called on congregations to declare themselves open and affirming. At the core of the declaration is that people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions are welcome in full participation in the church. Before adopting an open and affirming statement, most congregations engage in a time of study, prayer, reflection and discussion. Among the denomination's more than 1,000 open and affirming congregations are Akron’s First Grace UCC and Miller Avenue UCC, UCC of Kent, Fairlawn West UCC, Norton’s Grace UCC, Brecksville UCC and Canton’s New Vision UCC.

Seeking injunction

The UCC says North Carolina’s laws, which ban marriage between same-sex couples, make it illegal for its ministers to perform a religious marriage between same-gender couples. The denomination is seeking a preliminary injunction that would allow ministers to choose whether to perform a religious marriage between same-sex couples.

The denomination has more than 1.1 million members in 5,100 congregations nationwide. It adds the lawsuit to a list of firsts, including its status as the first mainline denomination to ordain a woman, the first to ordain an openly gay man, the first predominately white denomination to ordain an African-American and the first mainline denomination to support same-sex marriage.

“The United Church of Christ is proud to defend the religious freedoms upon which this nation was founded,” said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC. “It is unfortunate that even today, laws are designed to treat gay and lesbian people unequally. In its efforts to restrict gay marriage, the State of North Carolina has restricted one of the essential freedoms of our ministers and of all Americans.”

Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or cjenkins@thebeaconjournal.com. She can be followed at www.twitter.com/ColetteMJenkins.