North Carolina Lawsuit On Gay Marriage, Religious Freedom Could Change the National Conversation

When we talk about religious freedom in the context of gay marriage, the thing that most readily comes to mind are cases of small business owners demanding the right to refuse service to gay customers. But a new case out of North Carolina is turning that thinking on its head. A lawsuit from clergy members of the United Church of Christ, an LGBT-friendly denomination, alleges that North Carolina's ban on gay marriage is infringing on their religious freedom by criminalizing pastors who perform same-sex marriages.

The logic here is pretty hard to refute. The United Church of Christ has allowed its clergy members to perform gay marriages since 2005 and states in the resolution that announced this policy that the church believes "equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender is an issue deserving of serious, faithful discussion by people of faith," and that they do not support legislative discrimination against same-sex couples, including on the issue of marriage. This stance, they make clear, is part of their interpretation of their Christian faith.

However, since 2012 North Carolina state law prohibits the religious solemnization of weddings without a state issued marriage license, which gay couples definitely can't get due to the fact the state's constitution now contains an amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. In other words, clergy members who perform gay marriages open themselves up to criminal charges.

Which makes it perfectly sensible that clergy members who believe they have a Christian duty to perform such ceremonies when asked would feel that their religious liberties are being infringed upon.

Unsurprisingly opponents of gay marriage in the state are not well-disposed to the case brought by the United Church of Christ, calling it a "lawsuit of the week." Tami Fitzgerald, Executive Director of the NC Values Coalition, says in a written statement that "We believe the people of North Carolina have spoken on this issue, and the federal courts have no business overturning the will of the people."

No matter where someone stands on the issue of gay marriage however, everyone has to admit that it is somewhat strange that the very same organization that called a baker being required to make a cake for a gay wedding "outrageous" and a violation of religious liberty, yet is completely fine with the idea of clergy members potentially going to prison by performing a religious ceremony that is in line with their religious beliefs. And that many other people presumably think the same way. Last I checked sending someone to prison for acting on their beliefs is the quintessential definition of infringing on religious freedom.

Like I said, it's hard to argue that the North Carolina law does not violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, meaning this case could be a game changer in how we talk about the interaction of religion and LGBT issues. After all, with more and more denominations adopting LGBT-friendly policies, the discussion about religious liberty on this issue is far from one-sided.