Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Lawsuit by North Carolina Church A New and Surprising Challenge to Same-Sex Bans

by Nomad

One North Carolina Church has taken the unusual step of challenging the state's same-sex marriage ban. The suit claims that  the state's ban violates its constitutionally-protected freedom to worship and conduct religious rites. 
Turning the whole argument on its head, this latest objection is one that lawmakers in North Carolina- and other states- should take seriously. It could just be the final nail in the coffin for same-sex bans across the country. 

Religious Freedom Working Both Ways
This has to be the weirdest twist in the same-sex marriage debate so far. On Monday, a liberal Protestant denomination opened a lawsuit challenging North Carolina's laws prohibiting same-sex marriage in that state. The suit argues that by forbidding its clergy from blessing gay and lesbian couples, it is effectively violating constitutionally protected religious freedom. According to an article in the New York Times:
The lawsuit, filed in a Federal District Court by the United Church of Christ, is the first such case brought by a national religious denomination challenging a state’s marriage laws. The denomination, which claims nearly one million members nationwide, has supported same-sex marriage since 2005.
That NYT piece also quotes Donald Donald C. Clark Jr., general counsel of the United Church of Christ.
“We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices.
According to the leaders of this denomination, the state of North Carolina has no jurisdiction to criminalize what any church can and cannot do. It would, they argue, against the First Amendment which guarantees that the government, whether local, state or federal, keep a hands off policy when it comes to religious practice.

Clark points out that North Carolina laws is not only unconstitutional, it is clearly inconsistent. Although clergy of the denomination are allowed to bless same-sex couples who have been married in other states, they are prohibited by law from performing religious blessings or marriage rites for same-sex couples within their own congregation. Violating such a prohibition would, according to the state law, subject the clergy to prosecution and civil judgement in court.

A Zeal that Chilled
It is a compelling argument that lawmakers of the state should be taking seriously. And in taking this stand, the United Church of Christ is not alone.
The United Church of Christ is joined in the case by a Lutheran priest, a rabbi, two Unitarian Universalist ministers, a Baptist pastor and several same-sex couples. They said the state’s marriage law “represents an unlawful government intervention into the internal structure and practices of plaintiffs’ religions.”
North Carolina’s attorney general,Roy Cooper, the defendant in the case, seems to be giving ambigious messages. He has stated that he thinks the ban should be lifted but would defend the state laws if needed. States across the country have seen similar same-sex marriage bans struck down after a pair of Supreme Court decision rulings back in June 2013.

As mentioned in the NYT article,  Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom toMarry, an organization that supports same-sex marriage commented on the unusual challenge:
“In their zeal to pile on to denying the freedom to marry, North Carolina officials also put in place a measure that assaulted the religious freedom that they profess to support by penalizing and seeking to chill clergy that have different views, The extent to which North Carolina went to deny the freedom to marry wound up additionally discriminating on the basis of religion by restricting speech and the ability of clergy to do their jobs.”
Justifying Errant Beliefs
On the other side of the argument was the executive director of North Carolina Values Coalition, which opposes same-sex marriage, Tami Fitzgerald.  She dismissed the United Church of Christ case as just another attempt to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina.

If you think there might not be enough irony in this situation, think again. Fitzgerald told the New York Times reporter that the case was both sad and ironic that: .
an entire religious denomination and its clergy who purport holding to Christian teachings on marriage would look to the courts to justify their errant beliefs"
The term "errant beliefs" could lead somebody to believe that there is only one approved way to be a Christian. They might also think that North Carolina lawmakers- guided by people like Fitzgerald-know who is a real Christian and who are just lost sheep. Of course, the drafters of the Constitution knew better than to trust that judgement to heaven and not to politicians in state capitals like Raleigh. Fitzgerald said in a statement:
“These individuals are simply revisionists that distort the teaching of Scripture to justify sexual revolution, not marital sanctity.”
Revisionists, of course, come in all shapes and sizes and, some would say, include a lot of televangelists and others who re-interpreted Christian teachings on things like divorce and the hoarding of personal wealth, for example. Jesus' exact words were pretty clear:
“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
So for Christian capitalists, there is by necessity a lot of distorting of Scripture.

Up until recently, The Mormon Church, was also considered (at best) revisionist by most other Christian groups, particularly when it came to certain historical articles of faith about marriage and paths to redemption
Yet that didn't stop the North Carolina Coalition from reportedly spending a couple of thousand on phone calls supporting Mormon Mitt Romney during the last presidential election. 
The bottom line is that once you start trying to decide who is and who isn't an approved Christian, you open up a can of worms, all squirming and casting judgment on one another. 
After all, at one time, all Protestant religion itself was considered revisionist, errant and downright heretical by the Catholic Church. 

And when it comes to a sexual revolution, Fitzgerald seems to miss the point that state laws do not prevent (or encourage) anybody from taking part. Whether or not there are same-sex marriage bans, homosexuality will exist. Most of it won't be very revolutionary.
More importantly, unlike the clergy of the United Church of Christ, Fitzgerald cannot grasp that same-sex marriages, blessed by a church of God, can spiritually validate the sanctity of marriage just as much as a traditional marriage does. 

In any event, the whole same-sex marriage ban debate has now taken an interesting and surprising turn. Against all expectation, one Church's demand for its religious freedom to be respected could be the last chapter in same-sex marriage bans.