Breaking new ground in the battle against state bans on same-sex marriage, clergy from several denominations across the state joined with six same-sex couples today in filing a lawsuit in federal court in Charlotte, challenging the constitutionality of marriage laws in North Carolina on both First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds.
In General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Cooper, the same-sex couples are seeking the freedom to marry and the clergy are seeking the religious freedom to perform wedding ceremonies for such couples.
According to the Campaign for Southern Equality, the case is the first of its kind of the 66 marriage equality cases pending in courts nationally to challenge marriage bans on 1st Amendment religious freedom grounds.
“In addition to bringing 14th Amendment claims under equal protection and due process, this lawsuit introduces a 1st Amendment claim that the marriage ban in North Carolina violates the right to the free exercise of religious beliefs by denominations, clergy, and congregants who believe that same-sex marriages are theologically valid and want to perform marriage ceremonies,” Jake Sussman, a partner at Tin Fulton Walker & Owen and lead counsel in the case said in a statement released by the organization.
In papers also filed today, the couples and the members of the clergy are asking the court to block enforcement of the state bans on same-sex marriage and the performance of same-sex marriage ceremonies pending a resolution of the case — which they say is likely to end in their favor.
“In recent months, nine district courts have struck down restrictions on same-sex marriage, including courts in Michigan, Tennessee, Texas, Illinois, Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Utah,” they argue in those papers. “No courts have upheld such a ban.”
The case joins two other actions filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in federal courts here challenging the ban on same-sex marriage and asking the court to block its enforcement pending resolution of the claims asserted.
In Gerber v. Cooper, three same-sex couples married elsewhere are seeking state recognition of their marriages and have asked the court to block enforcement of the North Carolina ban pending resolution of their case because of the serious medical condition of one member of each couple.
And in Fisher-Borne v. Smith, couples who originally filed their case as a challenge to the state’s ban on second parent adoption but then later added a challenge to the ban on same-sex marriage are seeking similar preliminary relief. A young child of one of the plaintiff couples there is being denied critical medical care because North Carolina neither recognizes his mothers’ marriage nor allows both mothers to adopt their child and establish a legal relationship.