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A Detroit minister wants a federal judge to answer the question of whether the state’s marriage laws make it illegal for clerics to marry couples without a marriage license.

The Rev. Neil Patrick Carrick, who sued the state of Michigan in federal court last January for the right to marry same-sex couples, wants ministers, rabbis, imams and other religious clergy to be able perform private religious ceremonies for couples who don’t have a license without the person officiating risking a criminal penalty.

Carrick, a former pastor with the United Church of Christ, said a person has the right to be married only in “the eyes of God” without the state being involved.

U.S. District Judge Judith Levy has asked for legal briefs to be filed by both sides by Friday.

Her order noted that Michigan law since 1957 has stated that marriage is a civil contract and two people’s consent to marry is not enough to make it legal.

Couples who wish to get married have to get a marriage license from their local municipal clerk and present it to the person presiding over the marriage ceremony, which must be performed before witnesses.

Carrick’s attorney, Mark Kollar, said the issue applies to those such as elderly or widowed couples who want to marry, but are afraid they will lose their Social Security benefits if they are legally wed.

“This is going to affect a lot of seniors,” Kollar said.

Clergy who perform marriages without a license could be charged with a misdemeanor and face 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine, according to state law.

If a couple wants just a religious ceremony, “can their clergy person be charged with the crime?” Carrick asked.

“On its face it is a yes. Which means a clergyman can be jailed for doing their job and their call. That is a direct offense to the establishment and free speech clause of the First Amendment.”

Kollar says the lawsuit also presents other constitutional concerns.

“It is a separation of church and state issue,” he said.

In her order, Levy wrote: “The question plaintiff seeks to have the court determine in this case is this: do Michigan laws prohibiting those authorized to ‘solemnize marriages’ from performing marriages that are illegal in the state of Michigan violate the First Amendment, where the marriage ceremony is a purely private, religious one?”

Levy added in her five-page order: “There is a different question that must be answered before the court can reach plaintiff’s question. That question is: do the aforementioned laws govern purely private ceremonies that are not intended to give legal effect to a marriage?”

Carrick names Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in his lawsuit.

Carrick also sued Snyder and Schuette in January 2015 for the right to marry same-sex and polygamous couples, which the state forbade.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states in a decision that was based partly on a Michigan case brought by a Hazel Park lesbian couple who wanted to be able to legally marry and adopt each other’s children.

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2027

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