An extremely interesting — and potentially highly important — twist came Monday in the ongoing culture wars over religious liberty.
New York Times religion writer Michael Paulson reports:
In a novel legal attack on a state’s same-sex marriage ban, a liberal Protestant denomination on Monday filed a lawsuit arguing that North Carolina is unconstitutionally restricting religious freedom by barring clergy members from blessing gay and lesbian couples.
The lawsuit, filed in a Federal District Court by the United Church of Christ, is the first such case brought by a national religious denomination challenging a state’s marriage laws. The denomination, which claims nearly one million members nationwide, has supported same-sex marriage since 2005.
“We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices,” said Donald C. Clark Jr., general counsel of the United Church of Christ.
The denomination argues that a North Carolina law criminalizing the religious solemnization of weddings without a state-issued marriage license violates the First Amendment. Mr. Clark said that North Carolina allows clergy members to bless same-sex couples married in other states, but otherwise bars them from performing “religious blessings and marriage rites” for same-sex couples, and that “if they perform a religious blessing ceremony of a same-sex couple in their church, they are subject to prosecution and civil judgments.”
The relatively brief Times story quotes Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, which supports same-sex marriage:
“In their zeal to pile on to denying the freedom to marry, North Carolina officials also put in place a measure that assaulted the religious freedom that they profess to support by penalizing and seeking to chill clergy that have different views,” Mr. Wolfson said. “The extent to which North Carolina went to deny the freedom to marry wound up additionally discriminating on the basis of religion by restricting speech and the ability of clergy to do their jobs.”
The report also quotes a same-sex marriage opponent (the same one used by The Associated Press):
But Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, which opposes same-sex marriage, derided the legal action as “the lawsuit of the week filed by those who want to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina.”
“It’s both ironic and sad that an entire religious denomination and its clergy who purport holding to Christian teachings on marriage would look to the courts to justify their errant beliefs,” Ms. Fitzgerald said in a statement. “These individuals are simply revisionists that distort the teaching of Scripture to justify sexual revolution, not marital sanctity.”
Here’s what I find intriguing: If North Carolina can tell clergy that they can’t perform same-sex marriages (regardless of whether the state recognizes them), what’s to prevent states that allow gay weddings from telling clergy that they must perform them? The values coalition source doesn’t seem to answer that direct question.
In a front-page Charlotte Observer story on the lawsuit, religious conservatives also address the rightness/wrongness of same-sex marriage itself:
The state’s 2012 constitutional ban, widely known as “Amendment One,” passed with 61 percent of the vote. The margin of victory was largely driven by social conservatives and conservative Christians. Many of them believe that the Bible reserves marriage for a man and a woman.
One of those is the Rev. Clint Pressley, pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist Church, one of the city’s largest congregations.
“It boils down to a view on the authority of Scripture,” he said Monday. “The denominations listed have abandoned almost 2,000 years of Christian Orthodoxy. It’s not surprising.”
The Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, which actively campaigned for passage of Amendment One, also weighed in.
“This lawsuit does not change the fact that God created men and women differently,” said spokesman David Hains. “The fruits of that difference are marriage and the continuance of the human race through children.”
But again, those comments don’t appear to answer the religious freedom question raised.
However, I noticed this tweet by James A. Smith Sr., chief spokesman for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.:
— James A. Smith Sr. (@JamesASmithSr) April 29, 2014
On that podcast, Mohler, the conservative seminary’s president, suggests:
It appears that those who have brought this lawsuit may well have a very convincing argument. And furthermore, it puts all of us who wish to advocate for and to protect religious liberty in a significantly sensitive and difficult place. Because even those of us that believe that the main thrust of the amendment is not only right but necessary have to wonder if the particular language in the North Carolina amendment does not actually pose a threat to the religious liberty not only of the clergy of the United Church of Christ who want to perform same-sex marriages, but also of the ministers of any other faith, including evangelical Christianity, who at some point and in some places where same-sex marriage is legal might be addressed with exactly the opposite mandate.