This morning I spoke at a press conference along with two members of my congregation, Joanne and Cathy, and other folks from around North Carolina who are challenging the state’s marriage laws. Yeah, I know, these court cases are popping up all over the country. But this one is different from any other because it is challenging our state’s marriage laws as a violation of the First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution that guarantees religious freedom. And that’s why I wanted to be a part of it.
If you know me at all, you know something about the extraordinary congregation I serve in Charlotte. Long before I arrived at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church nine years ago, they were known as a faith community that welcomes gay folks fully into the life of the congregation. In fact, they were so over all the gay controversy by the time I came to serve them that sexual orientation was a complete non-issue. Our mission of “Loving Not Judging” continues to attract people who have, for one reason or another, been damaged by other Christian congregations in the past. The folks at Holy Trinity are the real deal; you never met such a loving church in your life. (They’re even loving toward their pastor who has a tendency to go off the deep end from time to time.)
Since I’ve been at Holy Trinity, I’ve performed a lot of ceremonies for same-sex couples. We’ve called them a variety of things: Blessing of Rings, Commitment Ceremony, Holy Union, etc. Somewhere along the way, we started calling them a Marriage and we use the Lutheran liturgy from our hymnal with just a couple of slight changes in language. These have always been joyful celebrations with the faith community gathered around the couple in prayer. But they differed from the other weddings at which I officiated because I never signed a marriage license. We all knew that it was a marriage only in the “eyes of God” and settled for that because it’s all we had at the time.
Two years ago, there was a shift in my congregation. That’s when about 20% of North Carolina's voters made the decision for all of us to favor Amendment One, which defines marriage as something that happens between a man and a woman, period. (This was already the law in N.C., but Amendment One was an attempt to make sure nobody could ever come along and change that.) At Holy Trinity we worked hard against Amendment One because it was an affront to our core values as a congregation. When it passed, we were devastated. Many of the same-gender couples in my congregation gave up hope of ever seeing a change in North Carolina during their lifetime.
At the same time, in other states, opportunities for same-gender couples to marry were popping up. What was to prevent couples from my congregation from going elsewhere to do what they could never do in North Carolina? So, one-by-one, I have watched parishioners go outside North Carolina to marry. It’s been a year now since I have married a same-gender couple in my church. I understand why they go out-of-state to marry and don’t blame them for doing so. But it grieves my heart as their pastor.
Can you imagine what it would be like if we had to tell all of our heterosexual couples that they cannot be married in their home state, within the faith communities that love and support them by the clergy who have developed a relationship with them? It’s a ludicrous scenario, isn’t it? Because for people who are deeply connected with their pastors and their faith communities, we expect their weddings to take place within that context. And yet, for a large number of the couples in my congregation, that’s not possible.
Can anyone tell me how this is not a violation of our freedom to practice our religion in a way that is consistent with our beliefs? Of course I would never tell another pastor or congregation that they must marry same gender couples if doing so went against their deeply held beliefs. But why is it okay for those who disagree with the religious beliefs of my faith community to decide how we may or may not be able to practice those beliefs?
In the course of pursuing this litigation, I learned that it is a criminal offense for clergy to preside over a wedding or anything that looks like a wedding for same-gender couples in the State of North Carolina. Oops! Maybe all of us clergy who have performed ceremonies for same-gender couples in North Carolina should turn ourselves in. People would be surprised to learn how many of us there are. But how can those of us who support the loving relationships of same-gender couples do otherwise?
In the same way, as someone who serves as Pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte, I don’t know how I could have chosen NOT to be a Plaintiff in this case. I had no choice if I wanted to faithfully serve my people.
Among those people are Joanne Marinaro and Cathy Fry, who are also Plaintiffs. Joanne and Cathy have been together for 28 years. They have two grown children. Members of Holy Trinity for 25 years, they are loved and respected in the congregation. They have lived quietly alongside their neighbors as any other family. They have never been out to prove a point in the way they live. They have only been living their lives in the only way they could as the women God created them to be. And yet, now they are putting themselves in the spotlight because they believe the time for change has come. I have so much admiration for them as they have taken this step. While it feels to me that serving as a Plaintiff is part of my job as Pastor at Holy Trinity, for Cathy and Joanne, this is their life.