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Ohio couple ‘blown away’ by impact of marriage lawsuit

Obergefell, Arthur spent $13,500 for Md. marriage as terminal illness looms

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James Obergefell, John Arthur, gay news, Washington Blade, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality
James Obergefell, John Arthur, gay news, Washington Blade, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality

James Obergefell (right) and John Arthur in happy times before Arthur was stricken with ALS (Photo courtesy of James Obergefell).

Two days after a judge issued a court order requiring his home state to recognize his marriage, James Obergefell is still blown away by the media attention he and his dying spouse, John Arthur, have received after they spent $13,500 to wed in Maryland and sue Ohio to recognize the union.

During an interview with the Washington Blade on Wednesday from his home in Cincinnati, Obergefell called the experience of flying to Maryland to marry his partner of 20 years, returning home to sue for marriage recognition and having the court order his state to recognize it “surreal and honestly, kind of hard to believe.”

“Just the reaction that we received worldwide was touching and amazing. But then for it to turn into this?” Obergefell said. “We’re blown away, we’re thrilled and happy to show the world that we’re people too. We’re just like your neighbors, just like your kids. All we want is exactly what you have.”

The story of Obergefell and Arthur, both 47, and their marriage went viral earlier this month. Obergefell married his spouse Arthur, who’s dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS,) also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, on July 11.

Their friends and family donated about $13,500 for them to fly to Maryland on July 11 in a special jet equipped with medical equipment to serve Arthur’s needs. The couple married aboard the plane as it sat on the tarmac before returning to Cincinnati the next day.

After they sued the state of Ohio to recognize their marriage, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black issued a temporary restraining order on state officials, including Gov. John Kasich, requiring Ohio to recognize the union in Arthur’s remaining days. Arthur’s death certificate must denote that he’s legally married and Obergefell is his surviving spouse.

James Obergefell, John Arthur, gay news, Washington Blade

(Photo courtesy of James Obergefell)

Obergefell said he learned the judge put the order in place on Monday while at home with family — including with Arthur’s aunt, who married the couple in Maryland — after attending the hearing in which Black said he’d rule later that day. The news came from the couple’s lawyer via telephone.

“I got the call from our attorney, and he simply said, ‘We won!'” Obergefell said. “So then I got his email and I read the whole 15 pages, or most of them, to John and his aunt and his uncle after we jumped up and kissed and hugged and cried and all of that, then I just read through the document. And then, friends came over that night and we shared a bottle of Champagne.”

The judge’s decision to hand down a temporary restraining order even before he reached a final decision in the lawsuit was expected for Obergefell, who requested such action on Friday as part of the couple’s lawsuit. Still, when the order was handed down, Obergefell said the decision was “surprising, gratifying and just incredible.”

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said in a statement the great lengths the couple went to marry demonstrates the commitment of their love as he criticized Ohio law because it “cruelly denies them the freedom to marry at home.” A state constitutional amendment passed by Ohio voters in 2004 prohibits same-sex marriage.

“No couple should be forced to leave home to make legal their love and commitment to each other, and as a federal court this week rightly affirmed, no couple should suffer the indignity of returning home only to be told, ‘Your marriage doesn’t matter here,'” Wolfson said.

The order, which expires on Aug. 5, may have come just in time for the couple. Obergefell said Arthur has good days and bad days, but his health continues to decline.

“He has lost even more ability to speak,” Obergefell said. “I mean, a sentence or two is about all he can manage. ALS is a horrible disease; it just doesn’t let up.”

It’s hard to say how much time remains for Arthur, but Obergefell continues to have a positive mindset.

“In my heart of hearts,” Obergefell said. “I want to say indefinitely, I want to say many months more, but I don’t know. I wake up everyday, and my day is all around, ‘Be here longer. Be here longer.”

The reason the couple filed the lawsuit and went to such lengths to marry was Arthur’s death certificate. After the couple married on July 11, their lawyer informed them that Arthur’s death certificate would not designate him as married, nor would it identify Obergefell as his surviving spouse.

“It ripped my heart out,” Obergefell said. “Hearing that was enough to say, OK. I can’t stand for that. I can’t let any other gay couple stand for that. It isn’t right.”

But the decision to file the lawsuit resulted not just from the issue of the death certificate or state recognition of their marriage, but the idea that their union should be treated equally under the law.

“So it’s not the only thing; it was just the lightbulb going off over your head that — I felt responsibility, not just to John, not just to our marriage, but other people,” Obergefell said. “So, it’s not just that. We need to be equal. Simply put.”

Gov. Kasich, who opposes same-sex marriage, has the option of filing to a higher court the restraining order put in place by Black. No word has come yet from the governor’s office on whether he’ll do so.

Obergefell has a singular message for Kasich: Stand back and allow the court ruling that enables the legal recognition of him and his dying spouse to stand.

“My message to him is Gov. Kasich, we are citizens of Ohio, we are asking for nothing more than the same rights, responsibilities and benefits that every other married couple in the state receives,” Obergefell said. “That’s it. Do the right thing, sit back, and allow us to be Ohioans and Americans.”

Obergefell said he chose Maryland as the place where he and Arthur would marry because obtaining the marriage license in the state requires the presence of only one person — not both parties in the relationship — and because of the limited 48-hour waiting period that must pass before a wedding. Obergefell traveled by himself to obtain the license, then the couple returned together for the ceremony at BWI airport.

During the trip, Obergefell said one thought was continuously running through his head: “I can’t believe this is happening; I can’t believe this is happening.”

“That was closely preceded by, ‘Oh my goodness, we have such wonderful friends and family who — without prompting — jumped up and said, ‘We will make this happen for you,'” Obergefell said. “We will help make this reality.”

But when asked how it felt to have to spend $13,500 to travel to another state to marry when opposite-sex couples can do the same thing at their local courts, Obergefell said he was “pissed.”

“We live blocks from the Hamilton County Courthouse,” Obergefell said. “It makes me angry that we couldn’t just go there. And you know, that would still be physically demanding on him, but that would be a matter of getting him into his power wheelchair and taking him a few blocks to appear in person, and then coming home.”

Grant Stancliff, a spokesperson for Equality Ohio, said the legal recognition of their marriage is “huge” and “brought Ohio couples who are legally married in other states a ray of hope.”

“This is one of the biggest steps that has ever been taken toward marriage equality in Ohio,” Stancliff said. “It is a fantastic ruling for Jim and John. They really deserve the dignity and respect they were shown by Judge Black. Of course, so do the rest of legally married Ohioans.”

And Obergefell has a message for gay couples seeking to marry, but who live in one of the 37 states without marriage equality: Don’t wait another moment to obtain the recognition you seek.

“We deserve it; we’re asking for nothing special,” Obergefell said. “If you have the energy, the will, the desire, if you’re thinking about it, do it. Getting married, in a way, nothing changed, being together 20 years, but, truly, everything changed. It’s impossible to describe, but everything changed getting married.”

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Federal Government

Attorney details the harms of waiving anti-discrimination rules for religious universities

Incentives aligned for continuation of anti-LGBTQ discrimination

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The Lyndon Baines Johnson Building, Washington D.C., headquarters of the U.S. Department of Education (Photo Credit: GSA/U.S. Dept. of Education)

Democratic lawmakers re-introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act on Friday, which marked the 13th anniversary of the 18-year-old New Jersey college student’s death by suicide after he was targeted with homophobic harassment by his peers.

The bill, which establishes cyberbullying as a form of harassment, directing colleges and universities to share anti-harassment policies to current and prospective students and employees, was introduced by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) and Patty Murray (Wash.), along with U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (Wis.), Chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.

Advocacy groups including the Tyler Clementi Foundation, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and The Trevor Project have endorsed the legislation, which comes as issues concerning anti-LGBTQ harassment in institutions of higher education have earned renewed scrutiny on Capitol Hill and beyond.

Earlier this month, the Washington Blade connected with an expert to discuss these and other subjects: Paul Southwick, a Portland, Oregon-based litigation attorney who leads a legal advocacy group focused on religious institutions of higher education and their treatment of LGBTQ and other marginalized communities.

On Tuesday, he shared a statement responding to Friday’s reintroduction of the Tyler Clementi bill, stressing the need for equal enforcement of its provisions in light of efforts by conservative Christian schools to avoid oversight and legal liability for certain federal civil rights regulations:

“We are still evaluating the bill regarding how the bill would interact with the religious exemption in Title IX,” Southwick said. “We fully support the expansion of anti-harassment protections for students and corresponding requirements for educational institutions.”

He added, “We also believe that such protections and requirements should extend to students at taxpayer funded, religiously affiliated educational institutions, regardless of whether those institutions claim, or receive, an assurance of religious exemption from Title IX regulations” through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Baylor University’s unprecedented Title IX exemption

In response to a request from Baylor University, a conservative Baptist college located in Waco, Texas, the Education Department in July granted a first of its kind religious-based exemption from federal regulations governing harassment, a form of sex-based discrimination proscribed under Title IX.

Southwick explained that during the Obama administration, the federal government began to understand and recognize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as forms of sex-based discrimination covered by the statute. The Biden-Harris administration issued a directive for the Education Department to formalize the LGBTQ inclusive definitions under Title IX, with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that is now underway at the agency.

Beginning with the Department’s 2010 “dear colleague” letter clarifying the administration’s view that discrimination against LGBTQ people constitutes sex-based discrimination under the law, Southwick said the pushback from religious schools was immediate. In the years since, many have successfully petitioned the Education Department for “exemptions so they can discriminate against queer, trans and non-binary people,” but these carveouts were limited “to things like admissions, housing, athletics.”

No one had argued that “federally funded educational institutions [should] have no regulation by the federal government as to whether they’re protecting their students from harassment,” he remarked – at least not until the Baylor case.

Addressing the unprecedented move in a letter to the Department on September 5, U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Greg Casar (D-Texas), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) urged the agency to “clarify the narrow scope of this exemption and assure students at religious institutions that they continue to have protections against sex-based harassment.”

Southwick told the Blade other members of Congress have expressed an interest in the matter, as have some progressive nonprofit groups.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Department confirmed receipt of the lawmakers’ letter and said the agency will respond to the members.

The Department’s issuance of the exemption to Baylor came despite an open investigation into the university by its Office of Civil Rights over a Title IX complaint brought in 2021 by Southwick’s organization, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), on behalf of a queer student who claimed she was subjected to homophobic abuse from other students while university officials to whom she reported the harassment failed to intervene.

It is not yet clear whether the agency will close its investigation as a result of its decision to exempt Baylor from Title IX’s harassment rules.

Veronica Bonifacio Penales, the student behind the complaint against Baylor, is also a plaintiff in REAP’s separate class action lawsuit challenging the Education Department’s practice of waving Title IX rules for faith-based colleges and universities – which, the plaintiffs argue, facilitates anti-LGBTQ discrimination in violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The case, Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education, is on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Other religious schools are likely to follow Baylor’s lead

Southwick said the agency’s decision in the Baylor case “puts students at risk of harassment without a civil remedy against their school’s failures to properly address harassment,” adding, “Taxpayer funded educational institutions, whether religious or secular, should never be permitted to escape oversight from OCR in how they handle anti-harassment claims from LGBTQIA+ or other students protected by federal non-discrimination law.”

Buoyed by Baylor’s successful effort, requesting exemptions to Title IX rules for purposes of allowing the harassment of LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff is likely to become routine practice for many of America’s conservative institutions of higher education, Southwick said.

The nonprofit group Campus Pride maintains a list of America’s “absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ youth,” schools that “received and/or applied for a Title IX exemption to discriminate against LGBTQ youth, and/or demonstrated past history and track record of anti-LGBTQ actions, programs and practices.”

193 colleges and universities have met the criteria.

Many of the thousands of LGBTQ students enrolled in these institutions often have insufficient support, Southwick said, in part because “a lot of the larger civil rights organizations and queer rights organizations are very occupied, and rightly so, with pushing back against anti-trans legislation in the public sphere.”

Regardless, even in America’s most conservative schools like Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, Southwick noted that pro-equality students, faculty, and staff have pushed for change.

He added that while there are, no doubt, young people who harbor anti-LGBTQ views, “they often become much more progressive the longer they’re in school, because there’s just queer people coming out everywhere, you know, and it’s hard to hate people who are your friends.”

The powerful influence and role of financial incentives  

Southwick said meaningful reform at the institutional level is made more difficult by the reality that “financial incentives from the government and from the market are aligned to favor the continuation of discrimination.”

“Once the money stops flowing, they will almost all instantly change their policies and start protecting queer students,” he said, but added that colleges and universities have little reason to change without the risk that discriminatory policies and practices will incur meaningful consequences, like the loss of government funding and accreditation.

Another challenge, Southwick said, is the tendency of institutions of higher education to often prioritize the wishes and interests of moneyed alumni networks, boards of trustees, and donors, groups that generally skew older and tend to be more conservative.

Southwick said when he and his colleagues at REAP discuss proposed pro-LGBTQ reforms with contacts at conservative religious universities, they are warned “over and over again,” that “donors will be angry.”

Following the establishment of nationwide prohibitions against segregation and other forms of racial discrimination with passage of the federal 1964 Civil Rights Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which applied to public schools, and Runyon v. McCrary (1976), which covered private schools, Southwick noted that “A lot of Christian schools and college colleges continued to deny admission to black students.”

One by one, however, the so-called “segregation academies” would permanently close their doors or agree to racial integration, Southwick said – buckling under pressure from the U.S. government’s categorical denial of federal funding to these institutions, coupled with other factors like the decision of many professional associations to deny membership to their professors and academics.

Another important distinction, Southwick added: unlike Title IX, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “does not have a religious exemption.”

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Puerto Rico

Two men charged with attacking trans Puerto Rican woman plead guilty to federal hate crimes charges

Alexa Negrón Luciano attacked with paintball gun before her murder

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(Bigstock photo)

Two men on Monday pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes charges in connection with attacking a transgender woman in Puerto Rico in 2020.

A Justice Department press release notes Jordany Laboy Garcia, Christian Rivera Otero and Anthony Lobos Ruiz “were out driving together” in Toa Baja, a municipality that is about 15 miles west of San Juan, early on Feb. 24, 2020, “when they saw” Alexa Negrón Luciano “standing under a tent near the side of the road.”

“The defendants recognized A.N.L. from social media posts concerning an incident that had occurred the day prior at a McDonald’s in Toa Baja,” reads the press release. “During that incident, A.N.L. had used a stall in the McDonald’s women’s restroom.”

“Upon recognizing A.N.L., Lobos-Ruiz used his iPhone to record a video of himself yelling, ‘la loca, la loca,’ (‘the crazy woman, the crazy woman’) as well as other disparaging and threatening comments to A.N.L. from inside the car,” it notes. “The defendants then decided to get a paintball gun to shoot A.N.L. and record another iPhone video. Within 30 minutes, they retrieved a paintball gun and returned to the location where they had last seen A.N.L., who was still at that location. Lobos-Ruiz then used his iPhone to record Laboy-Garcia shooting at A.N.L. multiple times with the paintball gun. After the assault ended, Lobos Ruiz shared the iPhone video recordings with others.”

Negrón was later killed in Toa Baja.

Laboy and Rivera pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit a hate crime and obstruction of justice. El Nuevo Día, a Puerto Rican newspaper, notes a federal judge sentenced Lobos to two years and nine months in prison after he pleaded guilty to hate crimes charges last November.

Laboy and Rivera are scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 10.

They, along with Lobos, have not been charged with Negrón’s murder.

“To assault an innocent victim who posed no threat to the defendants for no other reason than her gender identity is reprehensible behavior that will not be tolerated,” said U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow for the District of Puerto Rico in the Justice Department’s press release. “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously defend the rights of all people, regardless of their gender identity, to be free from hate-fueled violence. Our community must stand together against acts of violence motivated by hate for any group of people — we remain steadfast in our commitment to prosecute civil rights violations and keep our communities safe and free from fear.”

Pedro Julio Serrano, spokesperson for Puerto Rico Para Todes, a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, on Tuesday welcomed the guilty pleas. Serrano also urged authorities to bring those who killed Negrón to justice. 

“The time for total justice for Alexa is now,” said Serrano in a press release. “Her murder was a hate crime. Nobody doubts this. They falsely accused her, persecuted her, hunted her, insulted her with transphobic epithets, uploaded onto social media a video of them accosting her and they killed her. There are already three individuals who will serve time in federal prison for attacking her in a hate crime. That’s some justice, but not complete.” 

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Federal Government

Barbara Lee: PEPFAR is ‘more in peril’ than ever before

Congress has yet to reauthorize funding for Bush-era HIV/AIDS program

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) speaks about the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

California Congresswoman Barbara Lee on Sept. 22 said the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is “more in peril” now than at any point since its launch two decades ago.

“This program is reauthorized every five years, but it’s always on a bipartisan basis,” said Lee during a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference that took place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C. “As we approach the benchmark of an AIDS-free generation by 2023, it is unfortunately more in peril now than ever before.”

Then-President George W. Bush in 2003 signed legislation that created PEPFAR.

Lee noted PEPFAR as of 2020 has provided nearly $100 billion in “cumulative funding for HIV and AIDS treatment, prevention and research.” She said PEPFAR is the largest global funding program for a single disease outside of COVID-19.

New PEPFAR strategy includes ‘targeted programming’ for marginalized groups

The panel took place amid the continued push for Congress to reauthorize PEPFAR for another five years. The federal government will shut down on Oct. 1 if Congress does not pass an appropriations bill.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken last December at a World AIDS Day event in D.C. acknowledged HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately impact LGBTQ and intersex people and other marginalized groups. A new PEPFAR strategy the Biden-Harris administration announced that seeks to “fill those gaps” over the next five years includes the following points:

• Targeted programming to help reduce inequalities among LGBTQ and intersex people, women and girls and other marginalized groups

• Partnerships with local organizations to help reach “hard-to-reach” communities.

• Economic development and increased access to financial markets to allow countries to manufacture their own antiretroviral drugs, tests and personal protective gear to give them “the capacity to meet their own challenges so that they’re not dependent on anyone else.”

The Family Research Council Action in an email to supporters urged them to tell Congress to “stop Biden from hijacking PEPFAR to promote its radical social policies overseas.” Family Watch International has said PEPFAR “has been hijacked to advance a radical sexual agenda.”

“Please sign the petition to tell the U.S. Congress to ensure that no U.S. funds go to organizations that promote abortion, LGBT ideology, or ‘comprehensive sexuality education,'” said the group in an email to its supporters. 

A group of lawmakers and religious leaders from Kenya and other African countries in a letter they wrote to members of Congress in June said PEPFAR, in their view, no longer serves its original purposes of fighting HIV/AIDS because it champions homosexuality and abortion.

“We wrote that letter to the U.S. Congress not to stop PEPFAR funding to Kenya, but to demand the initiative to revert to its original mission without conditioning it to also supporting LGBTQ as human rights,” it reads.

Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy.

American officials earlier this year postponed a meeting on PEPFAR’s work in Uganda in order to assess the potential impact the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act will have on it. The law, which Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed on May 29, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

Biden in his U.N. General Assembly speech last week noted LGBTQ and intersex rights and highlighted PEPFAR. Family Watch International in its email to supporters included a link to the letter from the African lawmakers and religious leaders.  

The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated both the FRC and Family Watch International as anti-LGBTQ hate groups.

“[PEPFAR is] not about abortions,” said Lee.

HIV/AIDS activists protest inside house speaker kevin mccarthy (r-calif.)’s office in d.c. on sept. 11, 2023. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power during the panel referenced Bush’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post that urged lawmakers to reauthorize PEPFAR.

“The way he put it is no program is more pro-life [than] one that has saved more than 25 million lives,” said Power.

Power referenced the “manufactured controversy that is making it difficult to get this reauthorization.” U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Knengasong said a failure to reauthorize PEPFAR would weaken “our own foreign policy and diplomacy.”

“Once again the United States will be missing in action,” stressed Lee.

Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary for Legislation Melanie Egorin and Kenny Kamson, a Nigerian HIV/AIDS activist, also spoke on the panel that MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated. 

From left: U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Nkengasong and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power discuss the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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