May a church demand on 1st amendment grounds that the state recognize any of its marital blessings? The curious case of the UCC in NC

29 Apr

A United Church of Christ church in North Carolina has sued the state over its constitutional amendment recognizing only heterosexual marriages and forbidding same-sex marriages.  What is odd, a real first (1st amendment, rather than 14th amendment claim), here is that the church claims that the law violates its free exercise of religion by refusing to recognize the same-sex marriages it performs and by forbidding those ceremonies from occurring.  Here’s a quick summary of what’s going on:

The suit asks the federal courts in the Western District of North Carolina to strike down the ban [on SSM], which was passed by state voters. It argues that the ban limits clergy choices and violates the principle of “free exercise of religion” by requiring clergy to minister to one segment of the public.

A dozen non-UCC clergy and same-sex couples joined the suit.

“By preventing our same-sex congregants from forming their own families, the North Carolina ban on same-sex marriage burdens my ability and the ability of my congregation to form a faith community of our choosing consistent with the principles of our faith,” said the Rev. Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, who joined the lawsuit.

As part of the state ban, it is a Class 1 misdemeanor for a minister to perform a marriage ceremony for a couple that hasn’t obtained a civil marriage license. In addition, the law allows anyone to sue the minister who performs a marriage ceremony without a license.

I believe that the North Carolina law on traditional marriage goes too far. It’s one thing to legally only recognize heterosexual unions. Most states do that.  But the law goes further than that and forbids clergy from ceremonially blessing same-sex unions in their churches. The first amendment, I think, does protect that right of churches to perform any marital blessing it wants, even if the state refuses to recognize them legally.  Such a religious blessing has no legal weight (since clergy can’t hand out marriage licenses), but what churches choose to ceremonially recognize is their own business (separation of church and state is a biblical principle) and such laws violate the principle of sphere sovereignty when the state meddles in their affairs.  That part of the law should be rescinded on first amendment grounds.

However, if the United Church of Christ is demanding that the state of NC recognize all marriages that it endorses [which it seems to be doing as well], then that too violates the principle of separation of church and state and sphere sovereignty in my judgment, despite any free exercise claims proffered.  Marriage is an institution ordained by God in creation given to all men. It is not an institution given only to the people of God administered only in the church. Therefore, churches have no business insisting that all or any of their martial blessings be recognized by the state.  For the United Church of Christ to be consistent, it must also agree that the state of Utah must recognize the polygamist marriages performed in fundamentalist Mormon churches.  If the religious freedom of the UCC is being violated, then so is that of the FLDS in Utah.  But there are limits to religious freedom, and one of those is that idea that the state must legally endorse any relationship (or their severances) adjudicated in the church.  Church laws and church governments and church courts are not civil laws and civil governments and civil courts.  To require the state to “obey” church rulings is to require the state to enforce ecclesiastical law.  Does the left really want that?  No, marriage is a civil institution with divine origins, which means that the civil community (not spiritual community) properly regulates it, and they should do so in conformity to God’s enduring moral law laid down and known through general or natural revelation and/or common grace available to all men created in His Image.

Update: The NC constitution defines marriage traditionally, but it does not contain the penalty against clergy conducting a wedding for unions that fall outside of that definition.  That part comes from a, rather old (17th century), NC statute still on the books.  Final point: if the law can tell ministers what kind of wedding ceremonies they may not conduct, it can tell them what kind they must.  That’s a message to the SSM opponents.  But if the church can tell the state what kinds of weddings it must recognizing, then it can tell the state what kind of weddings it must not.  No, churches must not make civil law and civil government must not make church law.

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