Equal Rights Win Again: Ohio Judge Rules Out-Of-State, Same-Sex Marriage Must Be Recognized

It was just the other day that I heard a quote I feel will stick for the foreseeable future, a sentiment that will only become more whole as the years pass. When asked about equal rights, writer and comedian Liz Feldman once said, “It’s very dear to me, the issue of gay marriage. Or as I like to call it: ‘Marriage.’ You know, because I had lunch this afternoon, not gay lunch. I parked my car, I didn’t gay park it.”

The summer of 2013 has been a historic one, playing host to monumental strides in the fight for equal rights; it has, indeed, been a year during which we have seen countless hours of campaigning and years of activism finally cause a large majority to shift their point of view, begin to see the world the way Feldman does. Yet, the age old adage “how far we’ve come, how far we have to go” stares us in the face; while we celebrate the victorious ruling to overturn DOMA, there are still 37 states that don’t recognize gay marriage as the federal government does. This week, an Ohio couple demanded their love and commitment to one another be recognized by their home state and the entire nation heard them loud and clear.

James Obergefell and John Arthur have been partners for over 20 years. In June, when the Supreme Court ruled DOMA unconstitutional, they decided to honor their life-long partnership by legally marrying. While the notion of a formal union was without question for the pair, the logistics of the nuptials would prove more complicated. Two years ago, Arthur was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an aggressive neurodegenerative disease better known as Lou Gehrig’s, that has left him bedridden. Since Ohio has yet to legalize same-sex marriage, the couple was left with no other alternative than to find a way to travel to Maryland, the closest state boasting equal marriage laws.

As it turned out, the cost and careful planning it would take to charter a medical transport plane to safely fly the couple to Maryland was no match for the generosity of friends, family, co-workers and complete strangers inspired by their story. On July 11, 2013, John Arthur and James Obergefell experienced a moment they would have never thought possible some 20 years ago, as they were married on the tarmac of the Baltimore airport. In reflecting upon that moment, Obergefell admits he is still overwhelmed.

“When we got together years ago, we never thought we would see gay marriage in our lifetime and now, here we are. We are stunned. Completely blown away. Being able to put rings on each other’s fingers and say ‘I do’…it was unbelievable. It was hard to imagine that 20 years later our relationship could feel different, but it did.”

A testament to the dedication of equal rights activists everywhere, two amazing individuals left Baltimore that day with something they had previously only dreamt of obtaining- nuptials recognized by the federal government. However, heading home to Ohio was bittersweet, for when they crossed over the state line, their husband and husband union was no longer legally valid.

“It was amazing, finally feeling valued, knowing the government recognized us,” said Obergefell of their marriage in Maryland. “However, we knew we had to go home to Ohio where we wouldn’t be recognized.”

With Arthur’s condition rapidly worsening, a friend reached out to Obergefell, inquiring whether he would be interested in meeting with a civil rights attorney; he decided that he most definitely was. During their initial conversation, Obergefell became aware that, under current Ohio law, when Arthur’s time came he would pass away as an unmarried man; not only would their union not be documented but, Obergefell would also not have the right to be buried next to his husband in the family plot designated for direct descendants and spouses. It was at that point Obergefell knew he could not sit idly by but, rather he must act with urgency in order to honor his relationship before Arthur’s last days.

“When I spoke to the attorney and he told me my name would not appear on the death certificate it ripped my heart out. I felt a responsibility, not only to myself, but to other people. This was coming soon for us and the thought of the death certificate being blank and my name not being listed…I couldn’t handle it. I thought of the millions of people across the country in similar situations and realized we had a responsibility. Taking action was the right thing to do.”

And take action they did. Obergefell, Arthur and their lawyer Al Gerhardstein sued Ohio Governor John Kasich and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. The lawsuit requested that the state recognize their marriage, allowing Obergefell to be listed as Arthur’s surviving spouse. In a ruling that referenced the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn DOMA, Judge Timothy Black granted a temporary restraining order that would require the state of Ohio to recognize the couple’s marriage. Judge Black’s ruling and the knowledge that their union was recognized in life and death by their home state was almost as gratifying as their marriage itself.

“To sit in that court room and hear a judge say he believed the law was discriminatory… how gratifying. How wonderful it was to hear that.” As we chatted about the impact the ruling had on him, Obergefell described feeling a number of emotions. “We were just happy. We cried, we laughed, we hugged, we smiled. For the first time we felt fully a part of our country; our legal system. We felt fully American.”

While the ruling was personally gratifying on a level that many of us may never understand, Obergefell and Arthur can also feel immense pride in knowing their case is making waves for Ohio lawmakers. Judge Black’s ruling has already thrown into question Ohio’s current marriage laws and their validity in light of the Supreme Court ruling earlier this summer. While Black specified that the ruling was contained to Obergefell and Arthur’s case, same-sex marriage advocates in Ohio see this as a step in the right direction, a result that brings the couple great joy.

“The ruling has caused huge discussion. I am sure attorney’s across the state are getting phone calls from people explaining their situations and wanting to know what they can do. I think it is fantastic. There is a lot of discussion and a lot of excitement. It is incredible to see the nation changing. The spirit of the nation is changing.”

I am often asked why I care so much about equal rights and gay marriage. Quite simply, James Obergefell and John Arthur are why I am passionate about equal rights. There tends to be great debate about the definition of marriage when, in all reality, it is very easy to understand; the one and only aspect of this traditional union that is required to uphold it’s sanctity is love. If two men, or any two people for that matter, have enough love for one another that they are willing to charter a medical transport plane in order to legalize their union, they should, without question, be allowed to marry. If two people love one another enough to file a lawsuit in an effort to ensure they are tied together for all of eternity, they deserve no less than to obtain a marriage certificate recognized by all levels of government. Whether between a man and a woman or two same sex partners, love is love and should be seen as such.

I only wish that each of you could have had the opportunity to speak with James Obergefell, as I did today. As I sat listening to him joyously discuss his recent marriage, I could feel the love he has for his husband through the phone and the pride he felt for what they had accomplished together was palpable. As I fought back tears, James continued to show his love for John, expressing how proud he is of the legacy his husband will leave behind.

“John has always been so positive. To know his legacy will forever be tied to this, to putting a dent in the armor, laying a brick in the wall; that makes me happy. We made our life better. We are making our state better, our country better. If we can leave the world a little better than when we found it, that’s all we can ask for.”

I would like to believe in my heart there are few among us who could oppose the thought that James Obergefell and John Arthur made not only their world, but our world better this week. By honoring their love they have helped pave the way for millions of others to honor theirs in the years to come. After all, James hit the nail on the head when he sincerely stated,

“There is no greater feeling than to love the person you love and to call them your husband.”

Congratulations on your marriage James and John! What a wonderful example of love and commitment you have become, simply by being yourselves. I can only hope our nation continues to build off the momentum you and the great state of Ohio have provided in the fight for same-sex marriage equality.

Feature Image via Washington Blade

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