A Group of People You'd Least Expect Are Fighting for Gay Marriage in North Carolina

The news: When a group like the American Civil Liberties Union sues to ensure marriage equality, it's to be expected. But when a group of clergymen stand up to do the same, well, that's a bit more rare.

Yet that's exactly what's happening in North Carolina, where clergy members have come together to sue the state for its ban on same-sex marriage. Their argument is the first of its kind in the country: The current law infringes on their First Amendment right to practice their religious beliefs.

"By denying same-sex couples the right to marry and by prohibiting religious denominations even from performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, the State of North Carolina stigmatizes same-sex couples, as well as the religious institutions and clergy that believe in equal rights," the suit reads.

The background: The lawsuit has been filed by the United Church of Christ, a rabbi and ministers from Lutheran and Unitarian Universalist churches around Charlotte. Several same-sex couples are also listed as plaintiffs.

Under current North Carolina law, a marriage is defined as between a man and a woman. Same-sex couples cannot receive marriage licenses. And if a member of the clergy performs a same-sex marriage ceremony without the license, he or she can be charged with a misdemeanor and a $200 fine.

The latter provision will serve as the grounds for the clergy suit — the plaintiffs will argue that "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," attorney John Martel said.

Does the suit have any chance of success? The United Church of Christ is certainly making a unique argument, but the novel approach may suffer precisely because of its unprecedented nature. It may be hard for religious institutions to argue that performing same-sex marriage ceremonies is central to their practice and that the North Carolina law serves as government interference in religious activity.

But if the argument works, it could usher in a new phase in the national movement toward marriage equality. Partnering with religious organizations can help advocates attack same-sex marriage bans from a new angle, and they could use the extra boost in conservative strongholds with faith-based populations.

Marriage equality across the country: The state is far from the only one facing a marriage equality suit; it is now the 66th challenge against same-sex marriage bans at the state level, including three in North Carolina, according to the Charlotte Observer.


Image Credit: Freedom to Marry

And public opinion may be on the plaintiffs' side. Just as there has been a nationwide upswing in support of same-sex marriage, North Carolina voters are increasingly backing marriage equality as well. A poll last year found that 38% of respondents supported same-sex marriage, representing a 4% increase from a previous poll. Even more encouragingly, 63% said they would at least support civil unions for same-sex couples. It's not a ringing endorsement, but it's a start.

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Eileen Shim

Eileen is a writer living in New York. She studied comparative literature and international studies at Yale University, and enjoys writing about the intersection of culture and politics.

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