WASHINGTON — Advocates for same-sex marriage are targeting the religious southern states with the first faith-based legal challenge to traditional marriage filed in North Carolina and a "southern strategy" to pass statewide nondiscrimination laws.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in Charlotte by the United Church of Christ, alleges a 2012 voter-passed constitutional amendment "limits ministers’ choices, violates the principle of 'free exercise of religion' upon which the church is built, and restricts the freedoms of religion and expressive association guaranteed in the First Amendment. The UCC seeks a preliminary injunction that would allow ministers to choose whether to perform a religious marriage."
The Charlotte Observer reported that "state law says it is a misdemeanor for ministers to perform a marriage ceremony without having a marriage license for a couple."
And one UCC pastor is willing to face jail — up to 120 days for a misdemeanor charge of performing the wedding of a couple without a state marriage license — if need be, according to Time magazine.
"Nancy Allison, the pastor of Holy Covenant (UCC) and an individual plaintiff in the case, is willing to face any repercussions that may come. 'I can’t imagine the law enforcement of North Carolina coming after a clergy person for doing their job, but if I were to be arrested for this, I would gladly face those arrest charges,' Allison explains."
The mainline Protestant denomination's website supporting the suit says the UCC has more than 5,100 churches and nearly (one) million members from across the United States. The church says it has 150 congregations in North Carolina.
Other faiths that campaigned for the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage spoke against the lawsuit.
“This lawsuit does not change the fact that God created men and women differently,” said David Hains, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte told the Observer. “The fruits of that difference are marriage and the continuance of the human race through children.”
The North Carolina lawsuit comes as the Human Rights Campaign, which claims to be the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization, is opening offices in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi to advance gay rights, according to USA Today. HRC "said the new $8.5 million campaign, called Project One America, is focusing on these states because they lack nondiscrimination protections for LGBT residents in the areas of employment and housing."
The effort is being backed, in part, by a Colorado software entrepreneur who spent 20 years changing the political landscape in a state whose legislature and statehouse were once solidly Republican, but now is in Democratic hands and where civil unions were approved in 2013. Tim Gill said he will fund efforts by the HRC and the American Civil Liberties Union "to lobby for nondiscrimination ordinances in housing and employment and for legislation allowing gay parents to adopt," according to The New York Times.
"We can’t allow two distinct gay Americas to exist," said Gill, whose foundation is investing "about $25 million into a handful of mostly conservative-leaning states" between now and 2019. He added, "Everybody should have the same rights and protections regardless of where they were born and where they live."
Lobbying for legislation will be challenging in the Bible Belt. The Hill newspaper reports, "support for legalization of gay marriage in a number of red-leaning, Southern states lags far behind the national average, according to a new poll. Support did not rise above 44 percent in North Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky or Arkansas, according to a survey done by The New York Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation" earlier this month.