By Michael Gordon

A group of Charlotte-area ministers helped launch the country's first faith-based challenge to same-sex marriage bans, claiming in a lawsuit filed Monday that North Carolina's laws block them from practicing their religion.

The local religious leaders, who include a rabbi, are joined by colleagues from Asheville and Raleigh along with a national denomination, the United Church of Christ. All support the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

They say state prohibitions, including a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2012, violate their First Amendment right of freedom of religion. And they are asking the federal courts in the Western District of North Carolina to overturn the ban as quickly as possible.

"North Carolina judges some of its citizens as unfit for the blessings of God. We reject that notion," said the Rev. Nancy Allison, pastor of Holy Covenant United Church of Christ and one of the plaintiffs in the case.

The sacraments of baptism and communion are open to all, she said. "So should all God's children be able to receive marriage."

The lawsuit was announced during a news conference at Holy Covenant. It becomes the 66th legal challenge to marriage bans now in the courts, three of them in North Carolina. But it is the first to attack same-sex marriage bans on religious grounds, said Charlotte attorney Jake Sussman, lead counsel for the group.

It also marks the first time an entire denomination has joined the marriage battle. UCC, headquartered in Cleveland, has more than 1.1 million members and 5,100 local churches. North Carolina is home to more than 24,000 members and 155 churches, including Holy Covenant in Charlotte and Trinity Reformed in Concord.

Joining the denomination and clergy as plaintiffs are same-sex couples in Charlotte, Asheville, Concord and Huntersville. They say the state laws violate their equal-protection and due-process rights under the 14th Amendment.

Cathy Fry and Joanne Marinaro of Charlotte say they've been together for 28 years. Two months ago, they say they were approached by the Rev. Nancy Kraft, their longtime pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, to join the lawsuit.

They say they have resisted the urge to get married in another state because they want Kraft to do the ceremony while they're surrounded by their family and spiritual community.

"We're waiting on North Carolina," Marinaro said.

'Authority of Scripture'

State law says it is a misdemeanor crime for ministers to perform a marriage ceremony without having a marriage license for a couple.

The lawsuit borrows heavily from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion last summer to strike down the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, which legally limited marriage to a man and a woman.

Kennedy wrote that same-sex marriage bans stigmatize couples, their families and their children. Monday's lawsuit claims that houses of worship that want to marry the couples are lumped into that lower status.

"By denying same-sex couples the right to marry and prohibiting religious denominations even from performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, the State of North Carolina stigmatizes same-sex couples, as well as the religious institutions and clergy that believe in equal rights," the suit says.

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."

The clergy and couples filing Monday's lawsuit say it is not their goal "to compel other faiths to conform to their religious beliefs." Instead, they say they want "to assert their right to freely perform religious services and ceremonies consistent with their beliefs and practices, and to extend the equal protection of the laws to all of God's children."

A sign leading into Holy Covenant drove home that point. "Jesus doesn't reject people. Neither do we," it said.

North Carolina's other two legal challenges to the state's marriage laws have been filed in federal court in Greensboro. Because Greensboro is a different judicial district, those cases cannot be consolidated with the complaint filed in Charlotte on Monday.

In the end, all three may take a back seat to a Virginia case scheduled to go before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in two weeks.

The three-judge panel will hear a case against Virginia's same-sex marriage ban. If the judges strike down that ban, as many legal experts expect them to do, they also could erase similar bans in West Virginia and the Carolinas, which are part of the Judicial Fourth Circuit. A ruling is expected by fall.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, a target of the Greensboro suits, has asked the court to delay one of those cases until after the Fourth Circuit rules. Legal experts say Cooper could follow the same strategy with the new case in Charlotte.

Cooper and his staff were studying the new complaint Monday, a spokeswoman said. She declined to comment on the possible legal response.

Campbell University law professor Greg Wallace, a supporter of traditional marriage, said the pending Fourth Circuit hearing will likely delay any action in the new complaint.

"I don't think any reasonable judge is going to hastily issue an injunction at this late stage," Wallace said. "We're probably going to have a decision by the Fourth Circuit at the end of the summer. If it upholds the Virginia ruling, that will decide the issue for everybody."

Ironically, in building their challenge on freedom of religion grounds, the plaintiffs in the new complaint are following in the steps of conservative and religious businesses fighting President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Those groups say the new federal rules requiring employer health coverage for contraception and other procedures forces them to violate their religious beliefs.

Sussman's firm, Tin Fulton Walker & Owen of Charlotte, has been looking for a way to enter the gay marriage fight since before the passage of Amendment One in 2012.

"We believe the lawsuit filed this morning is the next piece of the legal puzzle in North Carolina," he said.

Other Charlotte-area clergy members who have joined them include Robin Tanner, pastor of Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church; Rabbi Jonathan Freirich of Temple Beth El; Nancy Kraft, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran, and Nathan King, senior pastor at Trinity Reformed UCC in Concord.

They are joined by Asheville ministers Joe Hoffman of First Congregational UCC and Mark Ward of the city's Unitarian Universalist Congregation; along with Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist in Raleigh.

The other Charlotte-area couples taking part are Lisa Cloninger and Kathleen Smith, of Holy Covenant; Joel Blady and Jeffrey Addy, of Temple Beth El; and Shauna Bragan and Stacy Maloney, of Trinity Reformed UCC in Concord.

(c)2014 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)