James Obergefell’s name will now forever be synonymous with gay marriage history in the United States and around the world. It is his name that was on the historic, landmark case that took place in the Supreme Court to determine if gay marriage would be legal in the USA. But who is James Obergefell and why was it his name that is on the Supreme Court case?
Twenty-three years ago in the state of Ohio, James Obergefell met John Arthur and the two became inseparable. They fell in love and lived together in Cincinnati with friends and family for twenty years. In 2011, John was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a disease with no known cure, and was soon confined to a hospital bed in 2013.
On June 26, 2013, when the United States vs. Windsor decision was announced, the Supreme Court case that declared DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) was unconstitutional and required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, James popped the question and asked his partner to marry him. With the help of many friends and family donating a total of $13,000 USD, James and John were able to fly in a medical plane and get married in Baltimore, Maryland (a state that does recognize same-sex marriage) on the airport tarmac. When they returned to Ohio, they soon found out that when John died, on his death certificate, James would not be listed as his spouse. Their twenty years together as a couple would not be recognized. Three months after their wedding in Maryland, John died and the state refused to put James’ name on his death certificate. It was because of this that they decided to sue the state of Ohio to recognize their marriage. It went to the district court first and it was agreed by the court that it was discrimination. The decision was appealed and then went to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, where it was agreed that the marriage ban was constitutional. James then appealed that decision and the court case then went to the Supreme Court (the highest court in the United States). There were many other court cases at the same time being petitioned to be heard by the Supreme Court for gay marriage so, since Obergefell drew the lowest case number, that put his name ahead of everyone else’s cases and the reason his case was heard. In the landmark 5-4 decision that came down on June 26, 2105 (on the two year anniversary of DOMA being struck down), the majority of Supreme Court justices sided with Obergefell and thus making the ban against gay marriage illegal in all 50 states.
Obergefell has now become an icon and a hero for gay rights. Now that the court’s decision has been made, Obergefell plans to use his time to fight for more equality. Some states are now using religious freedom as an excuse to stop gay marriage. Also, in some states in the United States, someone could get married to their partner and then be fired the next day for it. Even though the Supreme Court decision was a huge step towards equality, there is still so much to do in the fight for full equality in the USA and around the world.
Words by Russell Boaz, Photo by www.aclu.org