A pastor has announced that he would no longer conduct civil marriages for the state of Asheville in an attempt to treat gay and straight people equally.

The Rev. Joe Hoffman, pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville, announced in his weekend sermon that he would be treating his gay and lesbian parishioners the same as heterosexuals.

“When I sign that piece of paper for marriage, as an agent of the state, I give (heterosexual couples) about 1,100 rights and privileges that gay and lesbian couples do not get,”

Mr Hoffman said. “I believe in equal rights for all people. As a minister, I was participating in a system that was unjust.”

The UCC became the first major US Christian denomination to declare its support for gay marriage. They have supported gay rights since the 1970s, when the church ordained its first gay minister.

Mr Hoffman said he made the decision on a personal level and says he is not speaking for his church, made up of more than 200 members, he said: “I hope it will prompt people to think, I hope they will question what this is all about. I think for heterosexuals, it will be a small inconvenience to have a religious ceremony and then get it legalised. But I hope it calls attention to the great injustice that people who are gay and lesbian live with every day.”

One member of his congregation, Kathryn Cartledge, said she was denied a chaplain job with the state for being a lesbian, she believes it should be her right to marry her partner of 23 years.

She said: “He’s willing to stand up and do what he can do,” she said. “I think that’s where I find hope.”