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In My Words: United Church of Christ brings the fight for equality to North Carolina

Associate Professor Anthony Hatcher writes in several regional newspapers about the activist history of a church that filed a federal lawsuit to overturn North Carolina's constitutional ban against same-sex marriage.

The following column appeared recently in the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News and the Roanoke (Va.) Times via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Viewpoints are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Associate Professor Anthony Hatcher

United Church of Christ brings the fight for equality to North Carolina
By Anthony Hatcher - ahatcher@elon.edu

Two years after a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage passed in North Carolina, I still spy the occasional bumper sticker that reads “Defeat Amendment One,” as the ban is known. Some homes around the state continue to sport defiant weather-beaten yard signs expressing the same sentiment.
 
Although 61 percent of the state’s voters favored the ban, opponents have been fighting it in the courts ever since. The latest party to file a lawsuit is the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ, marking the first time an entire religious denomination has joined a legal battle to repeal a statewide gay marriage ban.
 
So why did the UCC focus on North Carolina? Some point to the landslide of conservative legislation that followed the GOP takeover of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion in 2012, but that ignores the fact that Raleigh simply put the question on a ballot. Voters, not lawmakers, banned same-sex marriage.
 
In doing so, however, the majority infringed on the rights of a very powerful minority.
 
As the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a UCC minister and former president of Chicago Theological Seminary, recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “North Carolina saw fit to pass Amendment One in 2012, and thus it became a crime in the State of North Carolina for clergy to officiate a marriage ceremony without determining whether the couple involved has a valid marriage license.

 “Seriously, North Carolina, you made it a crime for us, in the United Church of Christ, to follow our church doctrine?”
 
Defenders of traditional marriage have criticized the UCC effort. Tami Fitzgerald of the NC Values Coalition characterized the Church’s suit as looking “to the courts to justify their errant beliefs.” Fitzgerald and other social conservatives should be cautious about underestimating the UCC’s determination to overturn the ban.
 
The United Church of Christ is a fighter with juice. These church folk have a long track record of pushing for equality, for breaking barriers, and for making history.
 
Simply put, they get results.
 
The church traces its roots to the arrival of the Pilgrims and the establishment of individually self-governing Congregationalist churches. In 1700, the Rev. Samuel Sewall published the first colonial anti-slavery pamphlet. Lemuel Haynes, the first African-American to lead a Protestant church, was ordained shortly after our nation’s founding. Antoinette Brown Blackwell became the first woman pastor of a Christian church before the Civil War.
 
The current United Church of Christ was formed in 1957 from four combined denominations, including the Congregationalist Church, but there was no slowing an activist tendency toward social justice. The church challenged Mississippi television station WLBT in 1964 for failing to cover the civil rights struggle or allow a counterpoint to the station’s predominantly white viewpoint, even though nearly half its viewing audience was black.
 
WLBT did not serve the public interest because it failed to cover the black community, the UCC claimed. Primarily as a result of persistent UCC efforts, the license to operate the station eventually shifted to majority black ownership.
 
A more recent victory concerning the public airwaves was a 2007 ruling by the FCC, based on a UCC complaint, that the Hispanic network Univision was not providing adequate educational programming for children in Spanish, in violation of federal regulations. The FCC levied a $24 million fine against Univision.
 
As for gay rights, the UCC has been on the front lines for many years. In 1972, the denomination ordained both the first openly gay man and gay woman, and two decades later the UCC produced the first gender-neutral hymnal. Not surprisingly, the UCC would become the first church to support same-gender marriage equality.
 
In filing its recent lawsuit in U.S. District Court to repeal North Carolina’s gay marriage ban, the 1.1 million-member Church did what it always does – continue to fight for the equality of all people, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. “North Carolina’s marriage laws are a direct affront to freedom of religion,” according to the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, UCC executive minister of local church ministries.
 
Just as the NRA is a fierce defender of the Gospel of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, the UCC is a fierce defender of the Gospel of the First Amendment, including the free exercise clause pertaining to religion.
 
I’m not a member of the UCC and don’t speak for the church, but UCC adherents must be wondering why social conservatives haven’t joined the fight for marriage equality. After all, aren't conservatives always proclaiming that, “government should get off our backs?” Aren’t conservative Christians concerned about government intrusion into our lives? Don’t conservatives believe in a free market and personal responsibility?
 
Same sex marriage foes had better prepare to answer these and other uncomfortable questions. Their latest adversary has been fighting in the Culture Wars for 400 years.

Anthony Hatcher is an associate professor of communications at Elon University who teaches and researches in the area of religion and media.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
5/20/2014 8:50 AM