WASHINGTON, April 28 (UPI) -- Religious leaders in North Carolina have filed a lawsuit against the state's ban on gay marriage, turning on its head a popular argument against legalizing same-sex unions.
A group of local religious leaders and the national organization of the United Church of Christ argue in their filing that the voter-approved 2012 ban violates their First Amendment right of freedom of religion.
“The core protection of the First Amendment is that government may not regulate religious beliefs or take sides in religious controversies,” said Johnathan Martel, an attorney in Washington, D.C., helping the the case. “Marriage performed by clergy is a spiritual exercise and expression of faith essential to the values and continuity of the religion that government may regulate only where it has a compelling interest.”
The Cleveland, Ohio-based UCC, representing its 1.1 million members nationwide, is the first denomination to take up the issue legally.
“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,” the lawsuit says, pulling heavily from the majority opinion penned by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in last year's decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
The suit, filed Monday, is the 66th case to challenge bans on legalizing same-sex unions, and the first to use a faith-based argument to do so. Two other cases are working their way through North Carolina courts, and because they are in a different district, cannot be combined with Monday's suit.
But all three cases may be moot: If the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decides this fall to let stand a ruling to strike down Virginia's marriage ban, the decision could also take down bans in North and South Carolina as well as West Virginia.