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A church and a coalition of local clergy are challenging North Carolina's gay marriage ban by making a novel argument: that it violates freedom of religion.
Religious liberty has been the rallying cry for many opponents of same-sex marriage, so the lawsuit by the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ provides a unique opportunity to see whether gay marriage bans actually violate religious freedom. The Associated Press reports that the plaintiffs' attorney, Jake Sussman, believes this is the only case to make such an argument.
How exactly does North Carolina's marriage ban violate religious rights, according to the lawsuit?
While many congregations have been reluctant to address or change their policies on same-sex marriage, the United Church of Christ (UCC) has supported same-sex marriage since 2005.
The UCC is challenging North Carolina's gay marriage ban based on the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause. In their suit, the church and coalition of clergy argue that while the state recognizes marriages performed by all denominations, clergy performing same-sex marriages may be guilty of a crime.
This leaves the clergy of the UCC with a difficult choice: Either refuse to marry same-sex parishioners for fear of prosecution, or remain true to their religious convictions and face criminal charges.
Ironically, this is the same reasoning used by many religious objectors to same-sex marriage, who have sued over the right to refuse services to LGBT couples.
Critics like Slate's Mark Joseph Stern think the lack of conservative support in this case is more than ironic, it's hypocritical. With a premium placed on "religious liberty" in so many other legal battles, Stern writes, "[c]onsistency and morality would command conservatives to enthusiastically join the [UCC's] lawsuit."
The UCC also claims that North Carolina's gay marriage ban burdens its rights to expressive association, which is also protected under the First Amendment. Much like the rights of the Boy Scouts of America to exclude members based on sexual orientation (a policy they've since altered), the UCC claims rights as an association to follow its devotion to marriage equality.
With state law making it a misdemeanor for its members to follow its tenets, the UCC again argues that the North Carolina law unconstitutionally burdens its First Amendment rights to expressive association.
This suit joins dozens of other pending federal suits in states with active same-sex marriage bans. The UCC hopes this challenge will move North Carolina toward the growing minority of states which allow same-sex marriage.
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