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Durham couple vowing to change state law 

What do you say when you hear that two people are getting married? was the question. "Congratulations," someone said. "Have you set a date?" another one added. "You're really in love," a third one said. That was the answer Chantelle Fisher-Borne wanted. One of the leaders of the Triangle Freedom To Marry Coalition, she was talking with a group at Pullen Baptist Church in Raleigh about the issue of same-sex marriages. "It's about love," she exclaimed. "You don't say how happy you are that they'll have dental benefits together."

On Monday, Perry Pike and Richard Mullinax went to the Durham County Register of Deeds office and applied for a marriage license. Turned away because they're both men, and the state's Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) clearly states that it's got to be a man and a woman, they filed a complaint in District Court. So ended the debate within the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community about whether to challenge the state's law head-on or keep their powder dry. "It's more than just a political statement," Pike says. "We really love each other... It's the strength of our relationship and the strength of our commitment--yeah," he nodded, thinking to himself, "that's what allows us to do this."

"Everyone's been sittting around looking at each other going, 'Oh no, now's not the time,' and worrying about the legislature," says Mullinax. "But we're just seeking justice and asking to be recognized as a married couple." After all, he adds, "if no one calls 911, the police don't know there's a crime."

So who are these two who've stepped forward to be the "named" gay couple in the first lawsuit against North Carolina to assert a right of same-sex marriage? "They're wonderful men," says Suzie Wortham, who should know. Wortham grew up with Pike in DeWitt, Ark., (pop. 4,000). When he moved to the Triangle, she visited, then moved, too. "I stole his first girlfriend when we were in high school," Wortham jokes.

Pike, 41, was showing before and after pictures of himself Monday night at a celebration party at Joe & Jo's in Durham. Before: beard; hip. After: clean-shaven, boyishly handsome, could be your personal banker. He works for the city of Durham helping the unemployed. His passion is teaching a universalist approach to spirituality, including twice monthy classes in dances of universal peace, at the Friends Meeting House in Raleigh. He's calm, which will help in the political and media glare. Calm, he says, as long as there's time for meditation and dance. He's a little worried about the hate mail.

Mullinax, 36, is calm, period. He's a community leader--president of the Old North Durham neighborhood group--and builds stone walls for a living. He's also a country boy, from just outside Columbia, S.C., and exudes an unaffected faith about the public's ability to be fair about gay marriage even when they don't exactly like it. "We want to start a dialogue about this, and plead our case within the law," he says. "This might not be popular, but I firmly believe that most North Carolinians, when they've had time to talk about this, will say this is fair."

The couple were ready, rings in hand, to go to the magistrate's office and be married--assuming a willing magistrate--had they been issued a marriage license. They'd have a religious ceremony separately, Mullinax says, because they consider the religious and legal status of marriage to be two separate things.

Mullinax is a practicing Methodist. His pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church, the Rev. Laurie Hays Coffman, calls it "the great grief of my ministry" that she is barred by church law from marrying gay couples or even blessing their holy unions, though she can and does counsel and "acknowledge" gay couples.

A number of gay-rights advocates around here think the North Carolina courts are a dead-end, and fear a backlash from the General Assembly when it convenes in May, perhaps in the form of a law banning domestic partners benefits for local government employees--currently being considered in Charlotte but in effect, so far, only in Durham and Orange counties and the cities of Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

No "good law" can come out of our state right now, they argue, given the conservative makeup of our legislature and courts. Push 'em, and they'll only make more "bad law." Better to await the results in states like Massachusetts, where the state Supreme Court has already ordered that same-sex marriages be sanctioned starting May 17.

"I have previously been a proponent of the 'don't make bad law' argument," says Cheri Patrick, the Durham attorney representing Pike and Mullinax. "But looking around [the country], what I see is that any progress that's been made has been made by grass-roots efforts. We already have bad law, and if there's going to more, well, I'm just not going to live in fear of it. It's time to move forward."

Patrick's clients made the decision, she emphasizes. But she was moved by an e-mail that came to her from out of state. "The silence from North Carolina is deafening," it said.

No more.

A "Marriage Equality Town Hall Meeting," sponsored by Equality NC and the Human Rights Campaign, will be held Wednesday, March. 24, 7-9 p.m. at St. John's MCC Church, 805 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh. Mullinax has organized an interactive art show, "Just Love," in Durham's Central Park (off Foster Street), through Saturday, March 27.

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