Two years ago when James Obergefell decided to sue the state of Ohio to recognize his marriage to his dying spouse, he didn’t envision his could be the case that decides the fate of marriage equality for the nation.
“I never would have imagined filing the case in Ohio to start with, let alone making it all the way to the Supreme Court,” Obergefell said. “I’m still in a state of disbelief.”
Obergefell is the lead plaintiff in the Ohio marriage case pending before the Supreme Court. Along with other lawsuits filed in Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee, the litigation has a good chance of being the vehicle for a Supreme Court decision establishing marriage rights for same-sex couples in all 50 states.
The 48-year-old Cincinnati resident spoke with the Washington Blade on Saturday during a visit to D.C. for the Human Rights Campaign’s annual spring convention, where attendees participated in training sessions and a lobby day on Capitol Hill and heard a speech from Vice President Joseph Biden.
After attending a reception ,where he met gay Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Obergefell last week helped deliver to the Supreme Court the “People’s Brief,” a friend-of-the-court brief with the signatures of 207,551 Americans in favor of marriage equality.
“I had the opportunity to meet a Facebook friend,” Obergefell said. “His father had died of ALS, and we just became friends on Facebook. This was our first chance to meet in person. That was fun. It’s really been gratifying to meet someone who reached out to share what they had gone through because of our story.”
Obergefell was married to John Arthur, who in 2011 was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In 2013, the couple flew from Ohio in an aircraft designed to fit Arthur’s medical needs to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where the two married on the tarmac.
When the couple returned to Ohio, they sued for recognition of their marriage to ensure Obergefell’s name would appear on Arthur’s death certificate, even though their home state doesn’t recognize their union. Arthur died a short time later.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Black ruled in favor of the couple, issuing a temporary restraining order to ensure the state would recognize the marriage for the purposes of the death certificate. The case generated significant media interest.
The step the couple took to fight for recognition of their marriage was unusual. Obergefell said the only other time he could recall being involved in LGBT rights was participating in 1993 in a demonstration against a since-repealed ballot measure barring Cincinnati from enacting pro-LGBT non-discrimination ordinances.
“I just remember at that point being part of a group that was at the polling place with signs, but that was the first and really only time I did that,” Obergefell said. “John and I just lived our lives; we certainly weren’t activists in any way shape or form.”
The couple’s ability to share their victory with each other was short-lived. Arthur died in October. But in accordance with the order, which was later made permanent, Obergefell received a death certificate designating him as Arthur’s surviving spouse.
Even though the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has since overturned the lower court’s decision in the couple’s favor, Obergefell said the death certificate in his possession still recognizes his marriage to Arthur.
“I’ll be honest, after the Sixth [Circuit] Court of Appeals ruling, I’m not sure if our permanent injunction remained in place because we appealed, or if that meant the state could at that point take it,” Obergefell said. “And part of me thought I would actually get in the mail without request something from the state showing a new death certificate, but nothing came and I haven’t requested one. I just decided I would wait until everything played out.”
After serving as Arthur’s caregiver in his remaining days, Obergefell said the time afterward has been difficult, but he manages to move forward.
“I think I’m still struggling to always find a purpose in the day without being able to have him there to care for, but I just know John would kick me in the rear end if I didn’t get up every day and make the best of it,” Obergefell said. “He always used to look at a glass half full, so I filled the last year-and-a-half with travel, spending time with family, friends, starting a new career, and just really trying to enjoy life that John taught me to do it.”
One thing that’s especially difficult is the fact that Arthur isn’t around to see the lawsuit he helped start reach the Supreme Court to set up a potential nationwide ruling for gay rights.
“I wish he were here to see what’s happened and to see what we’ve been able to do,” Obergefell said. “So, I’m very sad that I can’t share this with him and experience this with him. But I’m also proud to be able to continue this fight in his honor, and it’s really helped create a legacy for him. So, it’s happy, sad, it’s bittersweet, any of those words you can think of.”
The case, which is being handled by Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and Cincinnati-based lawyer Alphonse Gerhardstein, is more limited than other cases before the Supreme Court because it seeks only state recognition of same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
But Obergefell sees no competition between his lawsuit and other marriage cases, saying they work together to set up a nationwide ruling both on the basis of marriage recognition and the ability of same-sex couples to obtain a marriage license.
“I think they compliment each other,” Obergefell said. “I personally feel no competition whatsoever with any of the other cases. I don’t think any of the other plaintiffs feel that way. We’re all fighting the same fight, and I think that’s the overriding thing. We just want to be treated equally, so we’ll see what happens.”
Arguments in the case are set for April 28. Obergefell said he plans to return to D.C. to attend along with friends from Cincinnati — and perhaps elsewhere — who’ll come to support him.
The ruling is expected before the end of June, and if it’s in favor of marriage equality, Obergefell said it would be a “major step” in making gay people feel like “equal members of society and equal citizens.”
“Getting married is such an important thing to couples everywhere regardless of whether they’re straight, gay, it doesn’t matter,” Obergefell said. “It’s such an important personal thing, and to know that the Supreme Court has said you have the right. It needs to be recognized would be a huge step toward feeling like full Americans.”