North Carolina clergy cite ‘religious freedom’ in federal lawsuit seeking right to marry same-sex couples

A federal lawsuit was filed today by North Carolina religious leaders and same-sex couples challenging the state’s constitutional amendment, known as Amendment One, banning same-sex marriage.

The lawsuit was announced this morning at a press conference at Holy Covenant United Church of Christ in Charlotte, North Carolina. The lead plaintiff in the suit is the General Synod of the United Church of Christ with the key defendant being North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Cooper has stated he personally supports same-sex marriage but that will not keep him from defending the state law prohibiting marriage equality.

The suit is believed to be the first of more than 60 lawsuits in the nation challenging same-sex marriage bans to cite the First Amendment and religious freedom in the complaint.

“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,” Rev. Joe Hoffman, Senior Minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville and a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement.


“In addition to bringing 14th Amendment claims under equal protection and due process, this lawsuit introduces a First 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,” Jake Sussman a partner at Tin Fulton Walker & Owen and lead counsel in the lawsuit, said in a prepared statement.

Two other federal lawsuits challenging North Carolina’s same-sex marriage bans, filed by the ACLU, are pending. Cooper is the target of those lawsuits as well and two weeks ago he asked a judge to delay a same-sex marriage case until a ruling in the Fourth Circuit on a Virginia case.

“The higher court’s ruling ‘will certainly impact, potentially resolve and could serve as binding precedent’ for the North Carolina cases, Cooper and his assistants wrote, according to a story on

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“The core protection of the First Amendment is that government may not regulate religious beliefs or take sides in religious controversies,” said Jonathan Martel, a partner at Arnold & Porter LLP, in a statement. “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.”

The Campaign for Southern Equality is working with the legal team and plaintiffs to bring awareness about the lawsuit. CSE came to Georgia last year with its We Do Campaign in which five same-sex couples marched to the DeKalb County Probate Court and asked for, and were denied, marriage licenses due to Georgia’s own state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as being only between one man and one woman.

Last week, Lambda Legal filed a federal class-action lawsuit in Georgia challenging the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

From the North Carolina lawsuit filed today:

If a minister conducts any marriage ceremony between same-sex couples, he or she is guilty of a crime:

a. North Carolina General Statute § 51-6 states: “Solemnization without license unlawful. No minister, officer, or any other person authorized to solemnize a marriage under the laws of this State shall perform a ceremony of marriage between a man and woman, or shall declare them to be husband and wife, until there is delivered to that person a license for the marriage of the said persons, signed by the register of deeds of the county in which the marriage license was issued or by a lawful deputy or assistant.”

b. North Carolina General Statute § 51-7 states: “Every minister, officer, or any other person authorized to solemnize a marriage under the laws of this State, who marries any couple without a license being first delivered to that person, as required by law, or after the expiration of such license, or who fails to return such license to the register of deeds within 10 days after any marriage celebrated by virtue thereof, with the certificate appended thereto duly filled up and signed, shall forfeit and pay two hundred dollars ($200.00) to any person who sues therefore, and shall also be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.”

By depriving the Plaintiffs of the freedom to perform religious marriage ceremonies or to marry, North Carolina stigmatizes Plaintiffs and their religious beliefs, and the State relegates the Couple Plaintiffs to second-class status. The laws forbidding same-sex marriage tell Plaintiffs that their religious views are invalid and same-sex relationships are less worthy, thus humiliating each Plaintiff and denigrating the integrity and closeness of families and religious organizations, depriving Plaintiffs of the inclusive religious community of family units they wish to establish.

Under North Carolina law, the Clergy Plaintiffs are prohibited under threat of criminal prosecution from performing any such religious ceremonies, and the Couple Plaintiffs are prohibited from becoming married in the tradition of their respective faiths. Such laws violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

By purposefully denying civil marriage to gay and lesbian individuals, North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. Gay and lesbian individuals are unable to enter into marriages available through the State to opposite-sex couples solely because of their sexual orientation. Accordingly, these laws violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by casting gays and lesbians into disfavored legal status and categorizing them as “second-class citizens.”