“…and Our Rights We Shall Maintain”

May 18, 2014


Acts 16:16-26

John 14:1-6a


Five years ago in April, the Iowa Supreme Court handed down its decision extending equal marriage rights to all people in Iowa. Shortly after that decision, I told our Church Council that my assumption was that marriage in this sanctuary would be open to all people. That was the assumption and the decision of the Council members as well. Since then ceremonies in this holy place have given witness to the fact that while marriage is indeed between a man and a woman, it is also between a man and a man and it is also between a woman and a woman and all marriages entered into responsibly and prayerfully are blessed by God.

The couples that come to be married here are a diverse group of people: older couples who have been together for years, even decades and younger couples just starting out in adult life; some have been parents for many years and now their children have the stability of married parents; some have had children since getting married and joyfully brought them here for baptism; some are surrounded by their families, some are estranged from their families; some are members of this congregation, others are not.

As a congregation, we have proved what we believed to be the case all along: opening marriage to all people has renewed us and strengthened us in living out our faith even as it has improved the quality of life for so many in Iowa City and throughout our state. Again and again, new members say that one of the reason they joined this church is because of our open and affirming commitments.

So often it is easy to forget how great it is to live in Iowa.

So often we forget that our state motto, “Our rights we shall maintain,” speaks to the need for ongoing work.

When Kathleen Smith and Lisa Cloninger got engaged last October, they hoped to get married at Holy Covenant United Church of Christ. It is, after all, the church that has been their home during their 13-year relationship. It’s the kind of event that has become commonplace at Congregational UCC—so much so that we usually talk not of “same-sex marriage,” but simply of “marriage.” But there was a problem for Kathleen and Lisa. Holy Covenant is not in Iowa but in Charlotte, North Carolina, a state that does not allow ministers to perform legal marriages for all people. Two women, or two men, cannot get a marriage license. Ministers who do marry a couple that has not yet obtained a marriage license can face charges punishable by up to 120 days in jail.[1]

By the grace of God and the wisdom of our Courts, this will not stand.

On the morning of Monday, April 28, my email included the news that the General Synod of the UCC had filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Charlotte, arguing that North Carolina’s marriage law limits ministers’ choices and restricts the freedoms of religion and expressive association guaranteed in the First Amendment—and is therefore unconstitutional. As far as is known, this is the first time a religious organization has sued on the grounds that laws restricting marriage equality violate First Amendment rights, so the United Church of Christ is setting a precedent by this action.

Donald C. Clark Jr., general counsel of the United Church of Christ, said, “We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices.”[2]

Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Here at Congregational UCC we covenant to “walk together in the ways of Jesus Christ, known and to be made known.” And one of the characteristics of those who follow Jesus is that time and again, we find ourselves in conflict with the established order. Jesus did. Paul and Silas did. So, too, have any number of followers over two thousand years.

My guess is that the news of this lawsuit came as a surprise to most clergy and others who heard about it. For me, it was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t see it coming, but should have.

In our nation we do need to be on guard against the church’s intrusion into our secular government. This is a lesson we learned out of our past in New England where Congregationalism was the established order for nearly two centuries. But we must also stand in protest against government dictating what we or any other faith tradition may or may not do in practicing our faith. Our freedom to join people in marriage should not be denied simply because some disagree with our beliefs and our interpretation of scripture, when, as we have seen, marriage for all strengthens couples, families, congregations, and communities,

So what’s going on?

In 2012 North Carolina passed Amendment One, an amendment to their state constitution criminalizing the religious solemnization of weddings without a state-issued marriage license. While North Carolina allows clergy to bless same-sex couples married in other states it bars them from performing “religious blessings and marriage rites” for all other same-sex couples. “If clergy perform a religious blessing ceremony of a same-sex couple in their church, they are subject to prosecution and civil judgments.”[3]

Remembering the history of our own congregation is helpful here. Look at the timeline down in Rockwood Hall that shows the important moments in the life of this church. Many remember when my predecessor, the Rev. Bruce Fisher, officiated at the wedding ceremony of Brandon Hayes and Jack Pepples here at the church in 2001. Marriage equality was only hoped for in Iowa at the time. While Brandon and Jack were married in the eyes of God but not in the eyes of the State, this ceremony went as far as was possible in recognizing and blessing the relationship of those two men. The Press-Citizen covered the story and that was it. Were Bruce to perform such a service today in North Carolina, however, he could face legal prosecution and up to 120 days in prison.

The North Carolina law makes it illegal for a minister to perform a marriage ceremony for a couple who hasn’t obtained a license. The Catch-22 here, of course, is that the State also prohibits issuing licenses to same-sex couples. And there’s more: if the State doesn’t take action when this law is violated, anyone can sue a minister who performs a marriage ceremony without a license and collect up to $200 if they prevail.

My friend, Kent Siladi, the UCC Conference Minister in Connecticut, also helps us: He invites us to “Imagine that you are a pastor and one day, a couple comes to you and asks you to marry them; you counsel with them and agree. The next day, another couple comes to you and asks the same of you, and state law prohibits you from agreeing to conduct their religious ceremony.” Siladi asks, “Why should the state control a minister’s pastoral decisions?”

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, who teaches at the UCC Chicago Theological Seminary, said that “In recent years the religious and political right in this country has weaponized the Constitution. From bans on gay marriage to the right to own an assault rifle without a background check, the First and Second Amendments, particular, have been used as a battering ram against equality, fairness, and public safety.” She concludes, “People of faith and conscience in this country need to realize that the very rights that the Constitution protects are under siege by those who abuse and misuse constitutional guarantees.”[4]

She might sound a little over the top—but only a little.

A slightly more tempered statement came from the person who said, ““In their zeal to pile on to denying the freedom to marry, North Carolina officials also put in place a measure that assaulted the religious freedom that they profess to support.”

This is not acceptable.

Some responded to the news of UCC lawsuit by saying, “It’s good to see Christians acting as Christians again.”[5]

On the other hand, not everyone likes freedom—especially the freedom that Christians proclaim, the freedom that Christ brings. We often forget that. When Paul uses the freedom he has and the power that he finds in Christ to set someone free, he ends up in jail. There are consequences when people seek to be faithful. We struggle, Paul says, against principalities and powers. Quite often those powers strike back.

We forget. Not everyone likes freedom, especially for others.

So we heard from Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, who said of our United Church of Christ and its ordained leaders: “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. These individuals are simply revisionists that distort the teaching of Scripture to justify sexual revolution, not marital sanctity.”[6]

Of course, we are not revisionists, but simply Protestant Christians who know that saying “No” is one way that we respond to God’s “Yes.”

We are Protestant Christians who recognize that all that we count on as unchangeable—iron bars, stone walls, unjust laws, engrained attitudes—can be changed by the power of God.

We are Christians who seek to live in faithfulness to the God whom we discover in scripture, the God made know in the risen Christ, who loves and accepts all people. As a congregation we proclaim this love with joy. As Christians in the United States we will not be denied the religious freedom to live out our faith without government interference.

A Christian from Namibia prayed in this way:

            Lord, break the chains of humiliation and death,

                        just as on that glorious morning

                        when you were raised.

            Let those who weep as they sow the seeds of justice and freedom,

            gather the harvest of peace and reconciliation.[7]

This is an Easter prayer. We pray like this because of the resurrection promise that new life is at hand, that freedom is near.

Kathleen Smith and Lisa Cloninger, the two women I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, are planning to have their religious ceremony at Holy Covenant United Church of Christ in October no matter the outcome of the case. “We’ve bought dresses, we’ve sent save the date cards, we’ve booked a reception hall,” says Smith, who along with Cloninger is a North Carolina native. “Nothing could make us happier than if we were able to have both a religious and legal ceremony with everyone that we love around us and our pastor legally able to officiate at that ceremony.”[8]

They would, of course, be warmly welcomed if they had to come here instead, as have so many others who have come from out of state. But we hope, we pray, and we work toward the day when freedom of religion is in practice a right for all.

God breaks chains of humiliation and sets free.

God shakes the foundations of the earth.

God works in us and through us and with us so that each one of us might have the life for which we were created.

This is the hope we celebrate in this Easter season.

It is the hope that sustains us through trouble and trial.

In this hope we look toward the future that is already breaking in around us.

[3] Ibid.

[5] NY Times, loc. cit. comments.

[6] NY Times, loc. cit.

[7]. Zephania Kameeta, in Bearing Our Sorrows, pg. 175.

[8] Time, loc. cit.