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Group files lawsuit to keep state out of marriages

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TWC News: Group files lawsuit to keep state out of marriages
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GREENSBORO -- Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen is one of 11 plaintiffs who have filed a lawsuit over the state's marriage license laws. The group has argued the current rules blur the lines of church and state, and have requested a clearer definition of the government's role in marriage.

"We want to create a system that doesn't remake the Constitution but that relies on it, that we have appropriate relationships between my office, as an agent of the state, to clergy who worship in their own ways," said Thigpen.

"What I do in the sanctuary is between me, the couple, those witnessing and God," said the Rev. Julie Peeples with the United Church of Christ in Greensboro, who has also been listed as a plaintiff in the case. "The state is really preventing me from exercising my freedom of religion."

Under current law, when Peeples performs a marriage, she's required to act as an agent of the state and could face punishment if she weds a couple the state has not licensed.

The lawsuit has requested a change.

"That way, the faith communities can be free to bless those relationship that they see fit to," said Peeples.

That would mean religious leaders could chose to perform same-sex marriages, but the challenge goes beyond gay couples.

"There are elderly couples who want to get married. If they came down to my office and got the marriage license, it could mean they lose their benefits relating to Social Security and have implications with their insurance," said Thigpen.

Elon School of Law professor Scott Gaylord said the lawsuit has some holes.

"There is not an absolute right for any and all or complete separation of church and state," he said.

To explain, he used the famous Employment Division versus Smith case.

"A Native American religion used peyote, which is a hallucinogenic drug, as part of their religious exercises. The federal government banned the use of that drug," he said. And the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling.

The lawsuit has called for a decoupling of the state from the religious institution of marriage.

"Leave it to the state to deal with the licensing, the registering, the benefits aspect," Peeples said.

Gaylord said it's going to be a difficult process for them to walk the fine line between certain types of marriage situations that the government should stay out of.

Attorney General Roy Cooper represents the state in lawsuits filed against it. A spokeswoman for Cooper said the office has no comment on the legal complaint.

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