January 10, 2016 at 12:01 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Marriage plaintiff invited to attend State of the Union
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Obergefell v. Hodges lead plaintiff James Obergefell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that brought marriage equality to the entire country has been invited to sit with first lady Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address, the Washington Blade has learned.

Jim Obergefell, who challenged Ohio’s ban on recognizing same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court, told the Washington Blade he learned upon receiving a call from the White House on Tuesday of his invite to sit in the first lady’s box during the joint session of Congress.

“I was blown away when I received the invitation and incredibly honored that the first lady would think to include me in such a momentous occasion,” Obergefell said.

Obergefell is one among several guests representing progress in the country since President Obama delivered his first speech before a joint session of Congress seven years ago, a White House official said.

“Their stories — of struggle and success — highlight where we have been and where America is going in the future, building on the best of what our country has to offer,” the official said. “The guests personify President Obama’s time in office and most importantly, they represent who we are as Americans: Inclusive and compassionate, innovative and courageous.”

Obergefell has risen to national prominence not only for being the namesake plaintiff in the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges, but also for his personal story. As his partner John Arthur was battling Lou Gehrig’s disease, the couple flew from Ohio to Maryland and married on the tarmac at BWI Airport before immediately returning home. Arthur died before the Supreme Court decision upholding recognition of the couple’s marriage was handed down.

Obergefell said he thinks his inclusion among the guests represents Obama’s continuing support for LGBT rights in the last year of his administration.

“I think it just goes to support and further illustrate his commitment to the LGBTQ community,” Obergefell said. “He’s been by far the most supportive president and he’s done so many great things for our community to protect us and to support us. So, I think it’s just another way for him to send a clear signal that he’s fully on our side.”

Obergefell hasn’t shied away from politics in the aftermath of the marriage ruling. He introduced President Obama at an LGBT fundraiser in September for the Democratic National Committee in New York. In November, he endorsed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for president.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the lead sponsor of comprehensive non-discrimination legislation known as the Equality Act, said in a statement he was responsible for the invite of Obergefell to the State of the Union address.

“I’m honored to bring Jim Obergefell as my guest to the State of the Union this year,” said Merkley. “Jim’s love and commitment to his husband and his pursuit of justice should serve as an inspiration to us all. Now, we must finish the work that we have started and ensure that LGBT Americans have full equality in all aspects of their lives. It’s incomprehensibly wrong that in many states, a couple could marry in the morning and legally be evicted from their apartment or kicked out of a restaurant in the afternoon.”

Among the things Obergefell said he would like to hear from Obama in his speech is a celebration of LGBT progress over the past seven years. Additionally, he’d like to hear a call to move forward with the Equality Act, transgender rights and defeat of bills in state legislatures threatening LGBT rights.

“Even in a broader sense, I look forward to him talking about how the United States is a country where all are supposed to be welcomed, protected and respected,” Obergefell said. “It seems our country has lost its way a bit in that regard, so I look to him and hope that he talks about that and how we need to be the America that we’re supposed to be, where all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, you name it, where everyone is welcome.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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