The Unlikely Story Of How Religion Helped Bring Same-Sex Marriage To North Carolina

ASHEVILLE, NC — It was a rainy October morning when Associate Minister Gary Mitchell half-sprinted up to the glass entrance of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville, North Carolina, waving frantically as he approached. He looked excited but slightly out-of-sorts, a white robe flapping over his shoulder and rainbow-colored pastoral stole clenched in his first.

“Can I help you?” Mitchell asked, a smile widening across his face as he swung open the door. I explained that I was a reporter, here to interview the head pastor. He looked disappointed.

“Oh, I thought you might be here to get married,” he said. “People keep walking up, ringing the doorbell, and asking if we’ll marry them.”

The minister raised his stole aloft, grinning again: “I just finished one!”

First Congregational UCC has hosted dozens of same-sex weddings since North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage was struck down on October 10 of this year. Built out of stones and mortar and celebrating its 100-year anniversary this past June, the anachronistic exterior of the church belies a cutting-edge theology preached within: over the past three years, the medium-sized congregation has become the epicenter of a burgeoning faith-based movement for LGBT justice in North Carolina, supporting advocates and organizations to help bring marriage equality to the Tar Heel State. Most recently, the church played a crucial role in helping muster faith-based support for the lawsuit that struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

The story behind General Synod of the UCC v. Reisinger — which was filed by a group of progressive clergy and facilitated by the Campaign for Southern Equality, an LGBT advocacy group housed within First Congregational UCC — is an unusual anecdote within the larger narrative of America’s slow embrace of gay rights. Public opinion has shifted towards acceptance of marriage equality in recent years, but religious groups have remained staunch opponents of LGBT rights, especially within the American Southeast, where opposition to marriage for same-sex couples is the highest in the country. Yet the efforts of First Congregational UCC, the Campaign for Southern Equality, and a constellation of other faith-based advocates in North Carolina paint a very different picture of gay rights organizing, and may offer a glimpse into the future of LGBT advocacy in the South.

Amendment 1

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CREDIT: Jack Jenkins

Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality

The unlikely tale of General Synod of the UCC v. Reisinger begins with another legal document: Amendment 1, an addition to the North Carolina state constitution first proposed in 2011. The law stipulated marriage between one man and one woman as the “only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” State law technically already defined marriage as exclusively heterosexual before the measure was introduced, but the amendment — which was quickly approved by the state legislature and set for a statewide vote in 2012 — sought to establish a firm, immovable ban on same-sex marriages in North Carolina.

Like most state-level attempts to ban marriage equality, Amendment 1 enjoyed robust support from conservative Christian groups. Rev. Billy Graham, famous evangelical pastor and resident of Montreat, North Carolina, bought local radio ads and full-page print ads in 14 state newspapers ahead of the referendum, decrying same-sex marriage as an affront to “God’s definition of marriage.” Two Roman Catholic bishops in North Carolina also created videos encouraging their parishioners to vote for the amendment, and Vote for Marriage NC — the main pro-Amendment 1 campaign — was largely funded by donations from conservative groups with religious ties such as the Christian Action League, the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Charlotte and Raleigh, an unspecified “First Baptist Church,” and the National Organization for Marriage.

But the debate over Amendment 1 in North Carolina also saw a notable uptick in activism from a very different group: Progressive people of faith who support marriage equality. In the lead up to the vote, more than 200 clergy from Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point collectively condemned the proposed marriage ban through a series of proclamations and votes, and College Park Baptist Church of Greensboro passed a formal resolution affirming equality for all and condemning the measure as an example of “prejudice and discrimination.”

It was in the midst of this surge of spiritually-inspired pro-LGBT activism that Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara founded the Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE) in 2011, dedicating the non-profit to “work[ing] across the South to promote full LGBT equality.” Based in Asheville, North Carolina, the organization is not explicitly faith-based, but has strong religious roots: Beach-Ferrara — a soft-eyed advocate who recently had a child with her wife, Meghann — is also an ordained pastor within the United Church of Christ, and her organization is housed in the basement of First Congregational UCC.

“[CSE’s work] feels like public theology, public ritual, public witness,” Beach-Ferrara told ThinkProgress. “We’re really responding very directly to a landscape in which religion has been used as a weapon against LGBT people in the South.”

Around 87 percent of North Carolinians claim some sort of religious identity, and many are theologically conservative. But the ubiquity of religion in the South also makes it a chief organizing force for protest efforts. Many Southerners still recall the era of the African American Civil Rights movement, where dramatic sit-ins were organized by church groups and inspiring sermons were delivered by courageous pastors such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In fact, while religion has often been used to hurt LGBT people, signs show that theologies are changing. True, most Americans who disapprove of homosexuality cite faith, morality, or the Bible as justification for their position. But a growing number of religious people in the U.S. — 48 percent, according to Pew — see no conflict between their faith beliefs and LGBT rights. Acceptance of homosexuality is also high (and growing) among Catholics and Mainline Protestants, groups which collectively make up over 40 percent of North Carolina’s faithful.

In October of 2011, Beach-Ferrara and CSE, aware of these demographic shifts, launched what became known as the “WE DO” campaign. The effort consisted of a series of protest actions where gay couples requested marriage licenses in Southern states that currently ban same-sex weddings — only to be refused. The actions were filmed, and several videos of couples — flanked by collared clergy as they tearfully pleaded with officials for a marriage license — were posted online and picked up by major news outlets.

CSE’s bold strategy strengthened the efforts of a slew of other gay rights groups who were working to change public opinion ahead of a vote on Amendment 1. But it was also emblematic of an unusual shift towards embracing faith as a source for LGBT advocacy in the religious south.

“What we’ve done departs from a lot of how LGBT organizing has happened in the South,” Beach-Ferrara said. “It’s been about trying to slowly change state laws one by one … When we launched our work we were told that we shouldn’t talk about marriage in the South. [Others said] ‘We’re going to win on employment first, and then we’ll win on marriage 5 years from now.’ But we said we want to talk about marriage [now], because it’s part of people’s lives.”

The case

Unlike purely secular LGBT advocacy groups, the faith-inspired efforts of Beach-Ferrara and her team meant that they were uniquely positioned to explore the intersection of LGBT rights and legal understandings of religious liberty. There was growing concern among equality advocates that their actions wouldn’t be enough to counter the well-funded operations of those who supported Amendment 1, and Beach-Ferrara and others believed that another effective strategy would be to take the issue of same-sex marriage to state courts.

“We just kept circling back to this legal theory that one of the attorneys had about First Amendment claims,” Beach-Ferrara said.

The lawyer’s unusual idea hinged on the way Amendment 1 interacted with preexisting marriage laws in North Carolina. According to an older state statute, ministers are prohibited from solemnizing a union without a valid marriage license. Failure to present such a license within 10 days of performing a ceremony is punishable by a $200 fine and makes a clergyperson guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor, and vulnerable to arrest. Because Amendment 1 made it illegal for a same-sex couple to obtain a marriage license — and since many progressive clergy openly embrace same-sex marriage and claim the ceremony as a religious rite — CSE’s lawyers argued that the law not only infringed on clergy’s constitutional right to freely exercise their faith, but also effectively criminalized their closely-held religious beliefs.

The concept was creative, and had the added benefit of offering a counter-narrative to 1st Amendment claims typically used by conservative Christians to justify excluding LGBT people. Still, the constitutional rights of LGBT couples were also being challenged by the marriage ban, so CSE’s lawyers paired the religious liberty claim with a more traditional 14th Amendment argument used by other challenges to anti-gay laws — namely, that prohibiting LGBT people from marrying denies couples their right to Due Process and Equal Protection.

Beach-Ferrara and her fellow advocates were convinced the case was one of the most efficient ways to bring marriage equality to North Carolina, but they ultimately didn’t have much of a choice: Amendment 1 was approved by referendum on May 8, 2012, passing easily with 61 percent of voters in favor and only 39 percent opposed. Disappointed but not defeated, Beach-Ferrara and her team refocused their efforts on readying the lawsuit, fine-tuning their argument and teaming up with legal firms Tin Fulton Walker & Owen and Arnold & Porter LLP.

Before they could file the case, however, they needed plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs

In keeping with the lawsuit’s faith-filled theme, crafters of Reisinger sought out religious individuals as plaintiffs in the case. In fact, one of the first plaintiffs to sign on wasn’t a religious person, but an entire religious institution. At the urging Beach-Ferrara and her staff, the case was endorsed in October 2013 by the United Church of Christ (UCC), a Christian denomination that boasts around 1.1 million members nationwide — 24,000 of whom live in the Tar Heel state. The UCC seemed like a natural fit for the case: in addition to a strong history of robust support for racial and gender equality, the UCC was one of the first major Christian groups in the United States to ordain LGBT people (in 1972) and bless same-sex unions (in 2005).

But while Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a national officer within the UCC, acknowledged the group’s progressive history, he insisted the denomination’s participation was mostly about protecting religious freedom.

“The issue for us was around the criminalization of clergy,” Guess told ThinkProgress. “North Carolina’s laws were egregious because they made it a crime for clergy to perform marriage services. They were trying to hinder any sort of semblance of marriage equality, [and] the route that they were taking was through religious leaders.”

“It was more than absurd — it was blatantly unconstitutional,” he added.

The UCC’s involvement marked the first instance of a national Christian denomination challenging a state’s same-sex marriage ban, a fact that instantly raised the profile of the lawsuit. It also paved the way for progressive clergy to sign on, and the case soon enlisted the help of a diverse coalition of faith leaders from a variety of religious traditions such as the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Reconstructionist Judaism, among others. The complaint described the religious leaders as people whose “faiths teach, and whose congregations affirm, that all loving couples, regardless of sexual orientation and gender, should be permitted to marry in their places of worship and who wish to marry such couples as part of their ministerial calling.”

One of the clergy plaintiffs was Rev. Joe Hoffman, head pastor of First Congregational UCC. Hoffman, like many southern people of faith, didn’t always espouse a pro-LGBT theology. It was a series personal encounters with gays and lesbians that chipped away his preconceived notions about gay people, their humanity challenging the exclusionary teachings preached to him as a child.

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CREDIT: Campaign for Southern Equality

One of the many “memes” used to promote the case.

“I started believing that gays were sinful and wrong, because that was what I was taught by people who I trusted in my church growing up,” Hoffman said. “It was only when I met people who were gay and lesbian that I began to see life in a broader sense. Then I realized: this theology doesn’t fit with what I’m seeing in the world.”

Hoffman was struck by these interactions, and began exploring how to create a broader, more inclusive theology that embraced LGBT people. He said he eventually found his answer in the example of Jesus Christ, who he said is “all about loving God and loving yourself and loving your neighbor and loving your enemy.” The new theology transformed Hoffman. He became a LGBT rights activist in Asheville and even stopped performing marriages completely in 2006, refusing to officiate a union until gay couples were also allowed to be wed. Hoffman eventually agreed to allow Beach-Ferrara and the CSE to set up shop in his church basement in 2011, and when she approached him about signing onto the lawsuit two years later, he said the choice was easy.

“I was very pleased to sign onto that,” Hoffman said. “Our congregation is about half gay and lesbian, and most of those people have gone to other states to get married legally. That’s been a real disappointment, because they can’t do it here with their friends and their family. So I wanted to sign onto something which allowed them to do it with their own church where the clergy were not going to be prosecuted for doing it, and in which might push marriage equality forward.”

Hoffman, Diane Ansley, and Cathy McGaughey appear on MSNBC.

CREDIT: MSNBC

Hoffman, Diane Ansley, and Cathy McGaughey appear on MSNBC.

General Synod of the UCC v. Reisinger also listed several same-sex couples as plaintiffs. The couples were primarily incorporated to back up the case’s 14th Amendment argument, which claimed that Amendment 1 denied them Due Process and Equal Protection guaranteed to all citizens under the U.S. Constitution. But the complaint also stressed the religious affiliation of the couples, many of whom were listed as active members, deacons, or elders in their worship communities. This included Shauna Bragan, a middle school science teacher and daughter of two Presbyterian ministers, who signed onto the lawsuit with her fiancé.

“My faith gave me the strength to come out, and my faith is why we entered the lawsuit, because [my fiancé and I] are both Christians and want to be married in a church,” Bragan told ThinkProgress.

Meanwhile, anti-Amendment 1 fervor reached critical mass by Spring 2014. Local lawmakers began actively defying the ban, and leaders of the Moral Mondays movement — a progressive faith-based protest effort that started in North Carolina in 2013 — vocalized support for same-sex marriage during massive rallies across the state. Feeling the time was right, Beach-Ferrara, CSE, and the plaintiffs finally filed their lawsuit — then referred to as General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper — on April 28, 2014. The defendant in the case, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, was eventually replaced by Drew Reisinger, the Buncombe County Register of Deeds who — despite being unable to officially sanction LGBT unions because of his position — was a vocal supporter of marriage equality. The CSE immediately launched a media campaign to generate buzz about case, creating the website “amendmentonelawsuit.com” and crafting sharable images of Hoffman and other plaintiffs with quotes declaring their support for marriage equality. They didn’t have to work too hard, though; the case’s religiously liberty claims played well with the media, eventually landing plaintiffs interviews with national news networks such as MSNBC.

The ruling

Six months and “a lot” of advocacy later, Hoffman sat in the corner of a pub in downtown Asheville, chatting with a friend and fingering his beer glass uneasily. The pastor was trying to cool his nerves: earlier that week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case called Bostic v. Schaefer, deferring to a lower court ruling that declared Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court’s move immediately brought marriage equality to Virginia, but it also meant that states overseen by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals — which includes North Carolina — could legalize same-sex marriage. They just needed a judge to uphold the new, pro-marriage equality legal precedent by ruling on an existing lawsuit.

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CREDIT: Jack Jenkins

Diane Ansley and Cathy McGaughey, a same-sex couple, file for a marriage license at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds.

Hoffman, Beach-Ferrara, and other equality advocates in North Carolina spent the next few days wracked with anxiety, unsure of when a judge would rule on one of the several lawsuits challenging Amendment 1. But as Hoffman sat at the bar on Friday, October 10, his phone suddenly lit up with a text from Beach-Ferrara: District Judge Max Cogburn, based in Asheville, was preparing to render a decision on one of the Amendment 1 challenges — specifically, General Synod of the UCC v. Reisinger. Hoffman quickly finished off his drink and hustled over to join the swelling crowd at the Register of Deeds’ office, arriving just in time to hear the news.

“While [Beach-Ferrara] was making an announcement, the Register of Deeds came out and said, ‘A decision has been rendered. We got it,’” Hoffman said, smiling at the memory.

Since the Bostic v. Schaefer decision dealt primarily with the 14th Amendment, Judge Cogburn’s ruling dismissed General Synod of the UCC v. Reisinger’s claims about religious freedom “without prejudice.” But in addition to declaring Amendment 1’s ban on marriage unconstitutional, the decision also cited any action that “threatens clergy or other officiants who solemnize the union of same-sex couples with civil or criminal penalties” as unlawful under the 14th Amendment. The inclusion of clergy was somewhat symbolic — the legal threat to pastors who officiate same-sex weddings was arguably moot the moment Amendment 1 was abolished — but the mention was still noteworthy, and stood as a testament to the faith-rooted movement that brought the case.

“The judge was very clear in saying Bostic is the law of the land right now, and Bostic makes it clear that Amendment 1 is unconstitutional,” Beach-Ferrara said. “And he did take this move to extend it to saying that same-sex couples can marry, out-of-state licenses are recognized, and you cannot be criminally penalized for performing ceremonies. It was terrific to see that that ended up in the ruling, establishing clearly as the law in North Carolina that there will be no sanction for clergy to do the ceremonies.”

Of course, the specifics of the ruling weren’t all that important to the dozens of marriage equality activists gathered in Asheville’s Register of Deeds building that Friday. Once news broke that Amendment 1 had been struck down, celebrations began, and workers immediately opened the office to begin marrying same-sex couples. Officials issued 19 marriage licenses that afternoon from around 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., extending their office hours for the occasion.

The scene, Beach-Ferrara recalled, was one of pure joy.

“The acoustics in the room are wonderful,” she said, referring to the high vaulted ceilings in the atrium of the Register of Deeds. “People just cried, and jumped up and down.”

The future of LGBT activism in the South?

Beach-Ferrara working at the Campaign for Southern Equality offices, located in the basement of First Congregational UCC Church.

CREDIT: Jack Jenkins

Beach-Ferrara working at the Campaign for Southern Equality offices, located in the basement of First Congregational UCC Church.

Speaking with ThinkProgress five days after Cogburn’s decision, Beach-Ferrara insisted the work of the Campaign for Southern Equality and other faith-based LGBT rights advocates was far from complete. Marriage equality may be the law of the land in North Carolina, but many other southern states have yet to embrace the universal right to marry, and gay people still face several legal obstacles outside of marriage.

“Right now I feel like our focus really turns to those states that are still waiting on rulings to get marriage,” she said. “And certainly, once there is marriage in all 50 states, we have a whole broad platform of talking about equality and public accommodations, employment, housing. I think the movement as a whole will shift into that.”

Confident in her faith-rooted efforts to achieve full equality, Beach-Ferrara is already setting her sights on Mississippi, one of the least gay-friendly states in the union. CSE filed a case challenging Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage, Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, on October 20, a hearing was held on November 12, and a ruling is expected very soon. Mississippi’s prohibition against same-sex marriage doesn’t impact clergy in the same way it did in North Carolina, so CSE’s case does not make a religious freedom argument like that of Reisinger. But just days before the case was filed, Beach-Ferrara was still convinced that her spiritual approach to organizing — which includes a sustained version of the WE DO campaign in Mississippi — had an important role to play in communicating a pro-equality message to religious southerners.

“In many places where we work, there are not many — if any — religious communities or leaders who affirm the dignity and equality of LGBT folks, either theologically or pastorally,” she told ThinkProgress. “We position faith at the center of our work in part to do theological and pastoral work in public life — to offer up a faith voice, and specifically a Christian voice for many of our clergy and a faith presence that create new space in the public conversation.”

Meanwhile, opponents of LGBT equality don’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Within days of the Cogburn ruling, another judge announced he would allow state legislators to appeal the decision. Thom Tillis, former Speaker of the North Carolina statehouse and now Republican senator-elect from North Carolina, and state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, another Republican, have both declared their intention to participate in lawsuits challenging Cogburn’s decision. And in a chilling reminder of how extreme anti-gay hate can be, the Buncombe County Register of Deeds has already received bomb threats.

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CREDIT: Jack Jenkins

Rev. Hoffman officiates the marriage of Diane Ansley and Cathy McGaughey.

For the time being, however, Beach-Ferrara had more immediate concerns. After finishing her interview with ThinkProgress, she walked across the street to the building that houses the Register of Deeds. A crowd had gathered once again, this time to observe the union of Diane Ansley and Cathy McGaughey, two lesbian members of First Congregational who have been together for 15 years. Beach-Ferrara made her way through the packed atrium, waving to Hoffman before handing both brides-to-be a bouquet of flowers. The buzzing wedding party then processed into the personal office of Drew Reisinger, the Buncombe County Register of Deeds. He stood behind his desk as they entered, smiling.

“We come here because the law has changed,” Hoffman began, stretching his arms wide. “Marriage is now something for everyone.”

“Thank you Jesus!” someone shouted, eliciting a round of chuckles.

Hoffman moved on to offer a brief homily before leading them in the exchange of rings and vows. The ceremony was short — after so many years spent waiting, Diane and Cathy seemed eager to get to the “married” part — but frequently halted by peals of laughter.

Finally, Hoffman lowered his voice, leaned forward, and drew the service to a close.

“Now, by the authority given me by the First Congregation of the United Church of Christ,” he said, tilting his head towards the steeple of his church, clearly visible out the window over his shoulder. He glanced over at Reisinger. “And the power given me now by the state of North Carolina…”

Hoffman was interrupted once again, this time by a chorus of giddy whoops and several hearty shouts of “Amen!” Diane and Cathy giggled. Several spectators wiped away tears. Beach-Ferrara, standing alone near the back, beamed.

After a pause, Hoffman lifted his hands into the air and spoke words that were once criminal, now legal, and — at least to this band of well-wishers, advocates, and people of faith — forever sacred.

“…I now pronounce you married — wife, and wife.”

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