The United Church of Christ made history on Monday when it filed a federal lawsuit challenging Amendment One, the voter-approved measure that banned same-sex marriage in North Carolina. A component of Amendment One bars clergy from performing wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples because they don’t have a legal marriage license, a policy UCC clergy say violates their right to religious freedom.
From the Equality North Carolina press release:
This case, General Synod of the United Church of Christ vs. Cooper, opens a new front in marriage equality litigation: it is the only case to bring 1st Amendment religious freedom claims among the 66 marriage equality cases pending in courts nationally.
And according to Jake Sussman, lead counsel on the case:
“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.“
While rare, it’s not unheard of for churches to perform marriage ceremonies for couples who don’t have marriage licenses. It’s assumed that all parties realize that the marriage won’t be recognized by the state or granted any legal rights, but to some, religious components of marriage are just as important as (or more important than) governmental recognition. Ultimately, it’s up to a church or individual officiant to decide whether a license is needed to perform the ceremony, and not all of them require it.
In fact, plenty of Christians actually oppose the prioritization of state marriage licenses, instead calling for marriages to be established by faith-based marriage covenants only:
Marriage is not a contract designed for convenience. It is not the property of the state. It is indeed ordained for three parties but we dare not substitute the “state” for our Lord, Jesus Christ. There is no biblical justification for Christian participation in marriage licenses and contracts. They are pagan to the core. They testify to the “god-state”, not to the reality of Christ’s relationship to his Church.
Now, the UCC doesn’t seem to be tackling North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage ceremonies with this level of extremism. (At the very least, their press release didn’t say anything about paganism.) But it is making an undeniable point. When religious officials preside over marriages, they are in no way granting, or attempting to grant, those couples legal rights. There’s no state entanglement whatsoever. Therefore, if clergy are banned from willfully practicing these purely ceremonial marriages, it is a clear violation of their right to express their religious belief in the sanctity of same-sex marriage.
There’s a voice missing here: Where are the loudmouth Christian extremists who protest marriage equality laws on the basis of the First Amendment right to religious freedom? Noticeably absent, as Slate‘s Mark Joseph Stern points out, because they only give a damn about “religious liberty” when the beliefs in question are their own.
The battle cry of “religious liberty” is only valuable to the American right insofar as it protects their own values—like animus toward gay people or rejection of reproductive rights. Just as, for many conservatives, corporate freedom extends to bosses who deny birth control but not to companies that support progressive causes, religious freedom in the hands of the right is really a term of art, or perhaps a dog whistle.
So long as a religion dictates that, say, you refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, your religious liberty gets a hearty cheer of approval from conservatives. But when your religion leads you to perform a commitment ceremony for a gay couple that is part of your congregation, the right’s howls for liberty fall deafeningly silent.
It’s like the introductory lecture of Hypocrisy 101: Conservatives Christians who cry “religious liberty!” at the passage of every progressive policy but who don’t actually care about free exercise of religion at all. Their only motives are to promote their own bigoted doctrines, attempting to twist the First Amendment in a way that benefits their cause. Yet when others’ religious views are suddenly threatened, they couldn’t care less.
Anyone legitimately concerned about the rights of believers to practice their faith as they wish should be appalled by North Carolina’s marriage laws. The threat of a minister going to jail simply for celebrating a gay marriage is a real, and terrifying, affront to the very premise of “free exercise” of religion. Given how irrationally concerned conservatives are that ministers may soon be arrested in America for refusing to conduct gay weddings, I would hope they would be equally horrified by the specter of a minister being arrested for agreeing to perform one. But, of course, they won’t be.
The right has settled on a stunningly specious new narrative of victimization and religious oppression; to observe that some Americans are facing religious oppression for their pro-gay views just doesn’t fit the storyline.
As if it needs repeating: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” North Carolina’s ban deliberately respects only one religious viewpoint and prohibits another. And because that dichotomy benefits right-wing “religious liberty” defenders, they’re shutting up. In Stern’s words:
Consistency and morality would command conservatives to enthusiastically join the United Church of Christ’s lawsuit. Hypocrisy will prevent them from saying a word.
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