A federal judge in Ohio recognized the out-of-state marriage of James Obergefell and John Arthur on Monday, a limited ruling but a hopeful one for same-sex marriage advocates in the state.
“It’s huge,” said Obergefell on The Last Word Tuesday. “It’s something we never thought we would see in our lifetime. It just helps us feel more valid, more valued, and prouder to be Ohioans, prouder to be Americans.”
Obergefell and Arthur are in a unique position. Two years ago, Arthur was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that has now brought him within days or weeks of death, Obergefell said. The couple hadn’t considered trying to get married until they saw the Supreme Court cut down the Defense of Marriage Act last June. The event inspired them to seek out nuptials in the nearby state of Maryland.
But by then Arthur’s disease had left him bedridden. This meant that the couple required a medical transport plane to fly them the hour and ten minutes to Baltimore, something that would cost $12,700. “Had the Supreme Court made the decision one year ago, this would have been as simple as us taking a trip because I could still walk,” Arthur said in a video made by the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The progression for me of the ALS has just compounded everything.”
After reaching out for ideas on Facebook, the couple were surprised to receive generous donations from friends, family, and coworkers–enough to cover the cost of the flight. On July 11, Obergefell and Arthur flew to Baltimore and were married inside their plane on the airport tarmac by Arthur’s aunt, Paulette Roberts.
Things became complicated when they returned to Ohio. Obergefell wanted to be listed as the surviving spouse on Arthur’s death certificate, so that he could be buried alongside his partner in a family grave plot exclusive to the Arthur family’s direct descendants and their spouses. But Ohio law, in not recognizing same-sex marriages within the state, wouldn’t allow it.
So Obergefell and Arthur sued Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and the Cincinnati doctor responsible for approving death certificates, asking the state to recognize their marriage and allow Obergefell to be listed as Arthur’s surviving spouse.
“Equal protection demands that opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples should be treated the same,” the couple’s attorney Al Gerhardstein said last Friday. “John and James were validly married in Maryland. If they were an opposite sex couple, Ohio would recognize their marriage. Being a same-sex couple is no longer a good enough reason to deny them equal rights.”
Late Monday afternoon, U.S. District Magistrate Judge Tim Black granted a temporary restraining order which required the state to recognize the couple’s marriage–noting that the ruling was exclusive to Obergefell and Arthur. In his 15 page opinion, Black also makes explicit reference to the thing that inspired Obergefell and Arthur to get married in the first place, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act:
“Under Supreme Court jurisprudence, states are free to determine conditions for valid marriages, but these restrictions must be supported by legitimate state purposes because they infringe on important liberty interests around marriage and intimate relations.
“In derogation of law, the Ohio scheme has unjustifiably created two tiers of couples: (1) opposite-sex married couples legally married in other states; and (2) same-sex married couples legally married in other states. This lack of equal protection of law is fatal.”
As Lawrence O’Donnell noted on The Last Word Tuesday, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia predicted this kind of ruling in his dissent of the DOMA decision:
“By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition. Henceforth those challengers will lead with this Court’s declaration that there is ‘no legitimate purpose’ served by such a law, and will claim that the traditional definition has ‘the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure’ the ‘personhood and dignity’ of same-sex couples.”
“I think Justice Scalia foresaw [this],” Gerhardstein said on The Last Word. “He knew that Ohio doesn’t really look to see if it’s first cousins that went off and got married in another state. They just say, ‘Look, if it’s legal somewhere, it’s legal here.’ Now they have to do the same thing for same-sex couples. And I think that’s great. And I think that’s right and just.”
Since Black stipulated that his decision applies only to Obergefell and Arthur, it may not be the kind of precedent Gerhardstein suggests, but for same-sex marriage advocates in Ohio, it’s a step in the right direction. For the couple themselves, according to Obergefell, “it’s an incredible feeling—that we do matter.”
Watch their story below.