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Thursday May 19th

United Church of Christ challenges gay marriage ban

The UCC filed a lawsuit against North Carolina in April arguing the state’s gay marriage ban limits the religious freedom of clergy who wish to perform gay marriages.

Although the UCC’s lawsuit is the first to challenge Amendment One on the basis of religious freedom, the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC, said the case is a mere glimpse into the spectrum of beliefs in the religious community.

“We’re not alone in this — there are other religious bodies that certainly share our values and affirm our effort to bring this matter to the courts,” he said.

According to N.C. marriage laws, a member of the state clergy is not legally permitted to officiate a marriage, legally or spiritually, if a couple does not have a valid marriage license, said Maxine Eichner, a UNC law professor specializing in LGBTQ issues.

After the 2012 passage of N.C. Amendment One, which legislatures put on the state ballot, same-sex couples could not obtain a marriage license in North Carolina.

Ministers who conduct marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, a class one misdemeanor, could face up to 120 days in jail or probation and community service if found guilty.

The N.C. American Civil Liberties Union also filed previous lawsuits to challenge the state’s gay marriage ban, first in 2012 and again in April of this year.

The ACLU’s April lawsuit challenges the state’s lack of benefits for same-sex couples and their adopted children. Their first lawsuit, in which same-sex partners who could not register as the joint legal guardians of their adopted children sued the government, is still awaiting court action.

The court is likely seeking direction from the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is currently deliberating in Bostic v. Schaefer the constitutionality of the same-sex marriage ban in Virginia, Eichner said.

But some conservative groups are adamant Amendment One will stay.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, a right-leaning advocacy group, said the UCC’s goal in the case is comparable to imposing their religious views on the state.

“The state is not restricting marriage, it is defining it as between a man and a woman,” she said. “The state has always regulated marriage.”

When Amendment One was passed two years ago, 61 percent of North Carolinians voted against same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage advocacy groups should respect public opinion, Fitzgerald said.

But the tides of public opinion are evolving — however gradually.

A September 2013 Elon University poll found that 47 percent of registered N.C. voters oppose gay marriage and unions, with 43 percent in support. In comparison, 39 percent of North Carolinians voted against Amendment One.

Nationally, a July 2011 Gallup poll reported that 52 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage and 43 percent opposed.

“Public opinion (in N.C.) has shifted more slowly than on the national level,” Eichner said.

Federal support is not the only place where opposition to same-sex marriage has begun to soften. The N.C. GOP released their 2014 political platform in early June, with the marked absence of explicit resolutions against same-sex adoption or support of federal bans on same-sex marriage.

With growing support, most same-sex marriage advocacy groups are confident that same-sex marriage and benefits are an eventuality — it’s not a question of if, but a matter of when.

Mike Meno, spokesman for the N.C. ACLU, said the plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuits have urgent health concerns, which he hopes will spark court action.

One couple has a child with cerebral palsy and lacks healthcare coverage to help sustain medical costs, he said.

“We know we’re going to get there, but a lot of these couples, they can’t wait,” he said.

Staff writer Mary Tyler March contributed reporting.

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