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NC Gay Marriage Ban Challenged By Clergy In First Faith-Based Federal Lawsuit

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(Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

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Charlotte, N.C. (CBS CHARLOTTE) – In the first faith-based challenge against same-sex marriage bans, Protestant clergy filed a federal lawsuit on Monday arguing that North Carolina is unconstitutionally restricting religious freedom by barring them from holding same-sex weddings in their congregations.

The federal lawsuit from the United Church of Christ, joined by several other religious leaders, challenges North Carolina’s “Amendment 1,” which was approved by the state’s voters in 2012. The clergy argue that this violates the First Amendment by criminalizing religious sanctification of weddings without a state-issued marriage license.

The clergy plaintiffs are seeking the religious freedom to perform these ceremonies and same-sex couples are seeking the freedom to marry, AmendmentChallenge.org states. Rev. Joe Hoffman, Senior Minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville, told NBC News that his denomination has long-supported same-sex rights, but that he faces the threat of a misdemeanor penalty for performing same-sex marriages – something he says they have been doing.

“It’s actually just a continuation of things I’ve been doing for about 10 to 15 years,” Hoffman told NBC News on Monday. “I’m in a community where there’s a large number of gay and lesbian people, a lot of those are friends, a lot of those are church members, and the injustice is just awful.

“A man and woman can get married and get 1000 rights, but a same-sex couple can’t … that injustice has bothered me for a long time,” added Rev. Hoffman.

The 2012 Amendment One initiative was approved by North Carolina voters 61 percent to 39 percent.

The Campaign for Southern Equality says that the Monday lawsuit is just one of 66 marriage equality to be filed nationally which will cite First Amendment rights in order to exercise religion freedom.

But this is the first legal attack on same-sex marriage bans on religious grounds, Charlotte attorney and lead plaintiff counsel Jake Sussman, told the Charlotte Observer.

The United Church of Christ is joined in the lawsuit by a Lutheran priest, a rabbi, two Unitarian Universalist ministers, a Baptist pastor and multiple same-sex couples, The New York Times reports. They stated that the North Carolina marriage law “represents an unlawful government intervention into the internal structure and practices of plaintiffs’ religions.”

Rev. Nancy Allison of the United Church of Christ said the lawsuit puts into practice the belief in equality that underlies faith in God, according to a speech obtained by the Charlotte Observer.

“We are proud to be a part of the United Church of Christ, a denomination that demonstrates God’s love by advocating for equality and justice,” Allison told the congregation. “North Carolina’s laws prohibiting same-gender marriage judges some citizens as unfit for the blessings of God. We reject that notion.”

“Marriage is a holy relationship. A sacred relationship made holy through God’s blessing,” she added. “The sacraments of baptism and communion are open to all people, so should all God’s children be able to receive marriage.”

The defendant in the case, North Carolina’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, has said he believes his state’s ban on same-sex marriage should be lifted, but has also pledged to defend the state’s laws, The New York Times reports.

The lawsuit heavily cites U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s wording in last summer’s striking of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, which restricted marriage as only between a man and a woman. Kennedy made the argument that same-sex marriage bans stigmatize these couples and their families.

The United Church of Christ lawsuit says that institutions of worship seeking to marry couples are also being stigmatized, along with the threats of legal prosecution.

The lawsuit reads: “By denying same-sex couples the right to marry and 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,”

Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess told the Charlotte Observer that North Carolina’s Amendment One law is “a direct affront to the freedom of religion; A basic tenant of our country and of any free democracy.”

“This lawsuit stands for freedom. No law should restrict the freedom of religion. The threat of prosecution and penalty for ministers in North Carolina is real.”

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