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Never before has a major Christian denomination sued state government in the United States over their marriage laws. At least until today, that is.

This morning, representatives of the national body of the United Church of Christ filed a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina for violation of their right to religious freedom under the First Amendment. In short, the state has threatened ministers with jail, probation and/or community service for conducting wedding ceremonies for couples that cannot present a state issued marriage license.

The issue arose because UCC pastors – a denomination known for being open and affirming of the rights and equality of members of the LGBT community – have been conducting weddings for same-sex couples despite the fact that the state of North Carolina refuses to offer them a marriage license.

“It is unfortunate, ” said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC, “that, even today, laws are designed to treat gay and lesbian people unequally. In its efforts to restrict gay marriage, the State of North Carolina has restricted one of the essential freedoms of our ministers and of all Americans.”

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“The United Church of Christ believes in advocating for justice, ” says the Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess, a national officer of the denomination and an openly gay man,  according to the UCC’s denominational website, “We believe that the UCC is called to be a prophetic church. God calls the church to speak truth to power. We are standing up for the freedom of religion, and to protect the rights of our ministers to do their jobs in faith.”

The UCC has been a vocal advocate for marriage equality as a denomination officially since 2005, when they passed a marriage equality resolution. According to the UCC website, the resolution states that, as a church, they support “equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage.”

The UCC, the lead plaintiff in this case, has been on the forefront of the fight for gay rights for some decades, having ordained an openly gay man as a UCC minister as early as 1972.

The UCC is a mainline Protestant denomination of more than 5, 100 churches and nearly 1 million members from across the United States. According to a press release posted on the UCC website, “The UCC is joined by pastors and couples who are seeking to get married in the state of North Carolina (three couples and three pastors are affiliated with the United Church of Christ).

At issue is Amendment One, approved by the voters in North Carolina, “which limited a domestic legal union to a covenant between a man and woman, ” says the release. “Under state laws consistent with Amendment One, it is a Class 1 misdemeanor for a minister to perform a marriage ceremony for a couple that hasn’t obtained a license, and such a license may not be issued to same-gender couples.”

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“The United Church of Christ (UCC) argues that North Carolina marriage laws limit ministers’ choices, ” says the denomination’s post on their “I DO Support Marriage Equality page, “violate the principle of ‘free exercise of religion’ upon which the church is built, and restrict the freedoms of religion and expressive association guaranteed in the First Amendment.”

For more information, visit: http://www.ucc.org/ido/

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