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Gay rights activists seek N.C. official willing to defy ban on same-sex marriage

Gay rights activists seek N.C. official willing to defy ban on same-sex marriage

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Activists seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples in North Carolina continued their search Monday for an official willing to flout state law and issue marriage licenses as an act of personal conscience as similar officials in New Mexico and Pennsylvania have done this summer.

Two lesbian couples requested and were denied marriage licenses by Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen. He said he’d be honored to do it but was barred by North Carolina law.

Lynn Hey, News & Record/AP
Tracey Bridges, left, and Cheryl Bridges, second from left, leave the Guilford County Register of Deeds office after being denied a marriage license by Jeff Thigpen, second from right, Guilford County Register of Deeds, and Guilford County Assistant Register of Deeds Elaine Inman on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Greensboro, N.C.

Lynn Hey, News & Record/AP
Shela Williams, left, and Deborah Wade leave the Guilford County Register of Deeds office after they were denied a marriage license on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Greensboro, N.C.

“I want you to know that I’m truly sorry I have to do this today,” Thigpen told Cheryl Bridges and Tracey Bridges of Greensboro, who spent $800 in legal bills to change their names to the one they share.

The legal status of their 12-year relationship gained greater importance after Cheryl Bridges, 55, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. The couple had a commitment ceremony in their North Carolina church and had powers of attorney and wills prepared, but there’s no legal guarantee state courts will follow their direction, said Tracey Bridges, 43.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the federal government can’t refuse gay couples equal rights if they’ve been married in states that recognize same-sex marriage. A lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greensboro cites that opinion in seeking to overrule North Carolina’s decision to enshrine a gay marriage ban in its constitution.

“Now that we’ve been denied here, we will go to Washington, D.C., and we will get married there and we will get the federal benefits that we want,” Tracey Bridges said. “Then we’re going to come back and we’re going to demand that that license from Washington, D.C., is going to be recognized.”

A state constitutional amendment North Carolina voters approved in May 2012 makes changing the law difficult and requires officials to recognize marriage only between a ma n and a woman.

The search by the Campaign for Southern Equality to find sympathetic North Carolina officials who would follow the example set by “rogue clerks” in other states illustrates why the amendment was important to proponents of traditional marriage, said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition, one of the groups behind last year’s amendment campaign.

The group’s outreach to officials in nine counties, both urban and rural, is “harmful to the political process in North Carolina because what they’re encouraging registers of deeds to do is to actually break the law,” Fitzgerald said in an interview. “They couldn’t win at the ballot, and now they’re trying to win by inciting lawlessness, which ultimately leads to anarchy.”

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The campaign to find a state official willing to violate North Carolina’s marriage law kicked off last month in Madison and Forsyth counties and is slated to continue for the next two months in Burke, Henderson , Mecklenburg, Buncombe, Transylvania and Cabarrus counties.

The effort prompted Fitzgerald to write registers of deeds in all 100 counties reminding them that crossing their sworn duty to uphold state laws could result in their removal from office and misdemeanor prosecution, which could require community service or jail time.

Shela Williams, 40, and Deborah Wade, 45, of Greensboro wear silver bands on their fingers to express their commitment to each other, but were also rejected in their bids for marriage licenses Monday.

“We don’t need a legal document to know that we love each other and to make a commitment to each other. We need a legal document to protect our relationship,” Wade said. “All we’re asking for to be recognized in this state is a legal piece of paper. We’re not asking any church to take a look at and recognize who we are.”

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