North Carolina

Online ministers championing marriage equality not recognized by NC clerk, suit says

gavel in courtroom
gavel in courtroom Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getting ordained online to officiate a wedding might be easy, but a county clerk in North Carolina allegedly won’t recognize it.

Universal Life Church Ministries said in a federal lawsuit filed Monday that Cleveland County Register of Deeds Betsy S. Harnage has refused to issue marriage licenses to couples married by ULC ministers ordained online for free.

“(Harnage’s) apparent policy of discriminating against (ULC) and its ministers unconstitutionally prefers certain religions or religious denominations over others and burdens (ULC) and its ministers’ free exercise of religion,” the complaint states.

The church also touts itself as a proponent of marriage equality.

“The Universal Life Church Ministries has long been a vocal advocate for marriage equality, and in many locations its ministers are the only option for those couples seeking a religious wedding ceremony in their area that comports with their values,” the church said in a press release announcing the lawsuit.

Officials from Cleveland County — which sits less than 60 miles west of Charlotte — said they weren’t aware of any such policy. The register of deeds “fully complies with all state and federal laws,” Senior Staff Attorney Elliot Engstrom told McClatchy news group Wednesday.

“This includes issuing and recording marriage licenses for same-sex couples,” he said.

Engstrom said he’s spoken with at least two members of the community ordained by ULC who were able to obtain marriage licenses in Cleveland County.

“We have a number of marriage licenses that have been issued and recorded of weddings where these people were officiants,” he said.

A representative and counsel for ULC did not immediately respond to McClatchy news group’s request for comment on Wednesday.

According to the complaint, the core ministry of Seattle-based ULC is “charitable organizations, advocacy for marriage equality and other social justice causes.”

Its ministers post sermons online, where followers can comment, as well as perform baptisms, funerals and marriages worldwide, the church said.

“ULC Monastery rejects the idea that a church’s members should be made to obey the commands of any central leadership structure and embraces the equality of all individuals,” the complaint states. “The Church believes its ministers may keep their own God or share it with others.”

ULC said marriages performed by ministers ‘of any religious denomination’ are recognized under North Carolina state statute, but Harnage has allegedly applied the statute selectively.

The church makes claims for violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments in the suit.

It’s also not ULC’s first legal effort, court documents show.

The church filed suit against four county clerks in Tennessee as well as the state’s attorney general earlier this year seeking to block a law barring ministers ordained online from performing weddings, according to a statement from the church.

That litigation is ongoing, court documents show, but ULC said a court hearing to work on “a permanent solution” has been scheduled for December.

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Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.