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LGBTQ religious freedom

Can a church be denied the right to solemnize a same-gender marriage?
Can a church be denied the right to solemnize a same-gender marriage?
Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Every time I hear religious representatives, often Catholics and Baptists, opposed to marriage equality contending their religious freedom is threatened, I’m baffled. How? Has a Catholic priest, as one example, been fined or jailed for refusing to celebrate one? Name one state where it occurred.

What about LGBTQ persons of faith who want their unions blessed by clergy? What about Unitarians, Episcopalians, or United Church of Christ LGBTQ members, among others, whose denominations support marriage equality, but whose clergy are restricted from conducting the ceremony?

Unfortunately, marriage has become convoluted as a civil and religious right. If opponents to marriage equality had better understood the issue everyone, gay or straight, would come together in a civil union and then, if a couple wanted their union solemnized as a marriage, find a pastor, rabbi, mullah or other clergy person to do it. Because marriage is interchanged today as secular and religious, there are clergy who want the right and honor to celebrate same-gender marriages, but can’t, even if done solely in a religious capacity.

In April, the United Church of Christ (UCC), with a long, rich history of social justice ranging from opposition to slavery, to supporting the ordination of women, and being one of the earliest, if not first supporter of marriage equality, filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging legal restrictions regarding their religious freedom to marry same-gender couples.

The UCC is challenging North Carolina’s ban on same-gender marriage because it “violates the church’s constitutional guarantee to freedom of religion.” The state ban, according to the UCC, makes it “a crime for its clergy to officiate a marriage between two people of the same sex.”

Under North Carolina law, Rev. Nancy Ellett Allison, who wishes to marry two female parishioners, would be criminally libel for officiating at a non-licensed wedding of two women, “even one for purely religious purposes”.

According to Rev. Allison referring to the couple, "Lisa and Kathi have demonstrated their deep and abiding commitment to one another and to the congregation for more than a decade.”

Donald Clark, the UCC's general counsel, said North Carolina's marriage laws violate the First Amendment's guarantee to free exercise of religion "because they subject our ministers to criminal sanctions for performing religious ceremonies."

Not surprisingly, the media which overwhelmingly interviews people of faith expressing irrational fears about the threats to their religious freedom has done little to report on the UCC’s lawsuit. It’s big news both for the legal arguments being made and the faith driven social justice it seeks.

The next time you hear someone complain they’re religious freedom is under threat because of marriage equality, ask them if their religious rights are more important than the religious liberty of LGBTQ persons of faith. Ask them to identify how their liberty is compromised. Aren’t everyone’s rights respected, if clergy can celebrate the sacrament and same-gender couples can receive it while those opposed to marriage equality can refuse to participate?

Paul Jesep is an attorney and founder of, a firm committed to the spiritual wellness of professionals. He also is author ofLost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically”.

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