Michigan Minister Seeks to Overturn Law Punishing Pastors for Conducting Gay or Polygamous Wedding Ceremonies

Rev. Neil Patrick Carrick
Rev. Neil Patrick Carrick and his wife Megan have 11 kids. |

A minister in Detroit filed a lawsuit against the governor and attorney general of Michigan stating that the state's law, which punishes clergymen for conducting wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples and polygamous marriages, is a violation of his religious freedom.

Rev. Neil Patrick Carrick, a former pastor at United Church of Christ, filed the lawsuit on Monday, seeking to terminate a Michigan law that fines certain clergyman found guilty of conducting an "invalid" wedding ceremony in his or her own place of worship.

The state explicitly defines same-sex marriages as "invalid" and also defines those who enter into polygamous marriages as felons. Under Michigan law: "If a person authorized to solemnize marriages knowingly joins any persons in the marriage contrary to the provisions of this chapter, he or she shall forfeit for each offense a sum not exceeding $500.00."

Michigan law also holds that any clergymen who marries wedding parties, who do not have a valid marriage license, can be charged with a misdemeanor and shall be fined another $100.00. The rule also states that if they cannot pay the fine then they are liable to be imprisoned for as many as 90 days.

The issue in this instance is not whether the state will recognize gay or polygamous marriages, but whether pastors can conduct gay or polygamous wedding ceremonies in their own religious institutions.

The 49-year-old Carrick, who said he had to turn down a number of wedding ceremony requests from same-sex couples due to the state's law, told The Christian Post that the state should not have any say over what a church, or any other religious institution, does in its own house of worship.

"The major point here is that Michigan state law prohibits a pastor or clergyman, or a person who is a clergy for a house of worship, to perform wedding ceremonies without the permission of the state," Carrick said.

Although Carrick says he has received quite a lot of criticism for his lawsuit, with some conservatives believing that he only filed this lawsuit to advocate for same-sex couples' right to marry, Carrick says the lawsuit is really focusing on the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights for clergymen and religious institutions.

"People want to claim that I am just trying to do something for gays or something like that," Carrick said. "That is not what this is about. This is about religious freedom for everybody. People should be able to worship as they choose."

Although many critics are focusing on the gay marriage aspect of the lawsuit, Carrick says his lawsuit also advocates for the right of religious institutions to deny people the right to get married in their institutions based on the institutions' own religious freedoms.

"Actually its about the right to perform marriage ceremonies and refuse marriage ceremonies as a pastor, or a church, or congregation, or a religious sect," Carrick added.

Carrick's lawsuit does not specifically call for the state to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses or even polygamous marriage licenses. Carrick, who belonged to a progressive church, said his lawsuit is simply trying to protect the right of those who can't get legally married in the eyes of the state to be able to at least get married in the eyes of their own God.

"It kind of boils down to this: a pastor of a church should not be an agent of the state in which they live," Carrick asserted. "They should not be working as agents of the state when they are responsible for taking care of their houses of worship and the covenants between individuals and God. I never got into the ministry to be an agent for the State of Michigan. I have a long-held belief that marriage is a covenant between individuals and their God, not between man and woman and the State of Michigan."

Carrick explained that the state's defense of its law will likely focus how the state describes marriage, which is in line with the traditional Christian view of marriage as a union between only one man and one woman. However, Carrick thinks it is wrong for the state to be so closed-minded in its definition of marriage, when the definition of marriage is subjective to whose religious belief it is being applied to.

"That seems to be the argument of the State of Michigan: 'Well, we have Christian marriage defined as a man, a woman in the State of Michigan.' That is not my view of what Christian marriage is," Carrick said. "Freedom is not one of those things that you can arbitrarily decide based upon whose beliefs they are. That is insane. We can go back to the founding of our country. They Pilgrims didn't come here because they were OK with English rule. They tried to escape the rule that they were under with the Anglican, or the Episcopal Church. Now we have everything from Catholics to Baptists saying 'we are going to make people live by our rules.' They sure wouldn't like it if they were forced to live by our rules. That is not religious freedom. That is not the First Amendment."

Carrick is still in the process of picking a law group to represent him. He said that he has been in contact with the American Civil Liberties Union and other prominent legal firms.

In 2004, the Michigan voters approved a ban on same-sex marriages. Carrick added that if the Supreme Court, which is set to rule soon on the state's gay marriage ban, determines the Michigan appellate court ruling should be changed, he will likely withdraw his lawsuit.

"If the Supreme Court comes down on the side of Michigan on Friday, then this lawsuit will be kind of important," Carrick said.

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