Lawsuit: unusual approach against gay marriage ban

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Lawsuit: unusual approach against gay marriage ban
Former Bishop Alfred W. Gwinn, of Raleigh NC, walks into the gymnasium, before presiding over the sentencing of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, of Lebanon Pa., at Camp Innabah, a United Methodist retreat, in Spring City Pa. Tuesday Nov. 19, 2013. A jury of his pastoral peers convicted Schaefer on Monday of breaking his vows by officiating his gay sons' Massachusetts wedding in 2007. Schaefer could face punishment ranging from a reprimand to a suspension to losing his minister's credentials. (AP Photo/Chris Knight)
CORRECTS ID'S ALEXIS LEONARD, LEFT, AND CHELSEA BERESFORD, NOT JUDY RANDOLPH AND SUSAN WILSON - Alexis Leonard, left, and Chelsea Beresford, right, smile after applying for a marriage license at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office in Asheville, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. Reisinger accepted the marriage license request and said he will send it to the office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. Reisinger says he thinks the state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Adam Jennings)
Alexis Leonard, left, and Chelsea Beresford kiss before applying for a marriage license at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office in Asheville, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger accepted the marriage license request and said he will send it to the office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. Reisinger says he thinks the state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Adam Jennings)
Mitch Fortune, left, and Jake Crouch look over paperwork before applying for a marriage license at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office in Asheville, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger accepted marriage license requests Tuesday, and said he will send to the office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. Reisinger says he thinks the state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Adam Jennings)
Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, front left, and Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, front-right, director of the WE DO Campaign, lead a group of same-sex couples and supporters before the couples apply for marriage licenses at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office in Asheville, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger accepted marriage license requests Tuesday, and said he will send to the office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. Reisinger says he thinks the state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Adam Jennings)
Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, left, waits with news crews for same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office in Asheville, N.C. Reisinger accepted the request from Brenda Clark and Carol McCrory. He says he'll accept the license request and send it to the office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. Reisinger says he thinks the state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Adam Jennings)
Same-sex couple Carol McCrory, left, and Brenda Clark, center, speak to Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, right, after applying for a marriage license at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office in Asheville, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. Reisinger accepted the marriage license request and said he will send it to the office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. Reisinger says he thinks the state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Adam Jennings)
Same-sex couple Lauren White, left, and Amy Cantrell, right, hold each other after applying for a marriage license at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office in Asheville, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, after Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger accepted accepted a marriage license request from a same sex couple. He says he'll accept the license request and send it to the office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. Reisinger says he thinks the state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Adam Jennings)
Amanda Adams, left, and Libby Enloe, show their marriage certificate, following their wedding ceremony, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2013. Adams and Enloe both from Winston-Salem, N.C., came to Washington to get married since it is not legal to have a same sex marriage in their home state North Carolina. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
RALEIGH, NC - MAY 14: Bronwgn Sheppard, 17, marches behind two females holding hands in protest of the recently passed Constitutional Amendment One in the North Carolina primary on May 14, 2012 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The activists were asking for a repeal of the Amendment which defines marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman, becoming the latest state to prevent same-sex marriages. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - MAY 14: Callie Stephenson (R), 16, and Bronwgn Sheppard (Center L), 17, chant while marching in protest of the recently passed Constitutional Amendment One in the North Carolina primary on May 14, 2012 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The activists were asking for a repeal of the Amendment which defines marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman, becoming the latest state to prevent same-sex marriages. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - MAY 14: Members of the Occupy Raleigh and '14th Amendment Equality Projects' group march in protest of the recently passed Constitutional Amendment One in the North Carolina primary on May 14, 2012 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The activists were asking for a repeal of the Amendment which defines marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman, becoming the latest state to prevent same-sex marriages. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - MAY 14: Members of the Occupy Raleigh and '14th Amendment Equality Projects' group march in protest of the recently passed Constitutional Amendment One in the North Carolina primary on May 14, 2012 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The activists were asking for a repeal of the Amendment which defines marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman, becoming the latest state to prevent same-sex marriages. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - MAY 14: Zoe Smith and Sunni Ryan, both 17 of Raleigh, march in protest of the recently passed Constitutional Amendment One in the North Carolina primary on May 14, 2012 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The activists were asking for a repeal of the Amendment which defines marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman, becoming the latest state to prevent same-sex marriages. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - MAY 14: Members of the Occupy Raleigh and '14th Amendment Equality Projects' group march in protest of the recently passed Constitutional Amendment One in the North Carolina primary on May 14, 2012 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The activists were asking for a repeal of the Amendment which defines marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman, becoming the latest state to prevent same-sex marriages. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
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By MITCH WEISS

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - A coalition of clergy members filed a novel federal lawsuit Monday against North Carolina's constitutional ban on gay marriage, saying it violates their religious freedom.

The clergy members said that they'd like to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies in their congregations, but that they can't because of the "unjust law." Their attorney, Jake Sussman, says it's the only case to bring the First Amendment religious freedom claims among the more than 60 marriage equality cases pending in the nation's state and federal courts.

"North Carolina's marriage laws are a direct affront to freedom of religion," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister with the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "We feel that it is important that any person that comes into community life of a United Church of Christ congregation be afforded equal pastoral care and equal opportunity to religious services that clergy provide."

But in North Carolina, clergy are often faced with a troubling decision: "whether to provide those services or break the law," he said. "That's something no clergy member should be faced with."

Along with United Church of Christ, which has more than 1 million parishioners, a dozen clergy members and same sex-couples who want to marry were listed as plaintiffs. The defendants included North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and several county district attorneys.

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman with the attorney general's office, said officials there hadn't seen the lawsuit yet.

This isn't the first legal challenge to North Carolina's law banning same-sex marriage, which was approved by voters in 2012.

The American Civil Liberties Union earlier this month launched a new legal assault on the state's ban on recognizing same-sex marriage, urging a federal judge to quickly negate it to help children and gay couples suffering from urgent health problems. The civil rights group said it was seeking to speed up a decision in a lawsuit filed in 2012 by citing the urgent health needs of a child who suffers from cerebral palsy who was adopted by one of the lesbian couples involved in the case.

The ACLU also filed a new lawsuit on behalf of three other lesbian couples struggling with health conditions made more difficult because they lack legal recognition of their marriages performed in other states, said ACLU staff attorney Elizabeth Gill.

The ACLU and the same-sex couples they represent argue a judge should act quickly to suspend North Carolina's marriage ban because they are suffering immediate and irreparable harm.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the federal government must recognize marriages of same-sex couples.

Seventeen states allow gay marriage, and federal judges have struck down bans in Michigan, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia.

"This lawsuit introduces a First Amendment claim that the marriage ban in North Carolina violates the right to the free exercise of religious beliefs by denominations, clergy, and congregants who believe that same sex marriages are theologically valid and want to perform marriage ceremonies," he said.

But NC Values Coalition executive director Tami Fitzgerald, who helped lead a coalition of Christian and conservative groups supporting the state's 2012 constitutional amendment, said the lawsuit is an attempt to void the will of voters who backed traditional marriage. Six in 10 voters backed changing North Carolina's constitution.

"This is sadly, and predictably, the 'lawsuit of the week' filed by those who want to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina," Fitzgerald said. "Moreover, it's both ironic and sad that an entire religious denomination and its clergy who purport holding to Christian teachings on marriage would look to the courts to justify their errant beliefs."

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