Culture Politics

Lonely widower takes lead in landmark gay marriage case

Jim Obergefell of Cincinnati is photographed in his living room. He and John Arthur married in Maryland because gay marriage is not legal in their home state of Ohio. After his husband died, Obergefell sued his state because Ohio won't allow his name on Arthur's death certificate. Now his case is in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo courtesy of The Enquirer/Carrie Cochran, via USA Today
"I now pronounce you husband and husband." said officiant Paulette Roberts as Jim Obergefell, left and John Arthur are married on the tarmac of Signature Flight Support at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Glen Burnie, Md. Photo courtesy of The Enquirer/Glenn Hartong, via USA Today

“I now pronounce you husband and husband.” said officiant Paulette Roberts as Jim Obergefell, left and John Arthur are married on the tarmac of Signature Flight Support at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Glen Burnie, Md. Photo courtesy of The Enquirer/Glenn Hartong, via USA Today

CINCINNATI — Jim Obergefell and John Arthur spent more than two decades living quietly together. They were never gay rights activists. Most of their friends weren’t even gay.

“John and I always joked that we were bad gays,” Obergefell recalled, “because the vast majority of our friends are straight couples.”

But when the Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2013, that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages, two new activists suddenly were born — one of whom now stands at the threshold of legal history.

Fifteen days after the high court’s ruling — with Arthur in the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s Disease — the couple flew to Maryland on a medically equipped jet to be legally married on the tarmac. Then they flew back home and learned their marriage would not be recognized in Ohio.

“All I thought was, ‘This isn’t right. I’m p—ed off,'” Obergefell, 48, says now, sitting in the silence of his art-filled condominium in Cincinnati’s historic Over the Rhine district.

So with little to gain but respect — the couple had protected their assets and finances because of Arthur’s imminent death — they filed a lawsuit seeking to have their marriage recognized. Within 72 hours, they won a temporary injunction.

Three months later, Arthur was gone at age 48. But his determination to have Obergefell named as the surviving spouse on his death certificate remains. And on April 28, the couple will have their day in court — the Supreme Court.

The case is called Obergefell v. Hodges — Richard Hodges directs the Ohio Department of Health — but it’s a combination of six lawsuits filed by 32 couples, widowers and children in four states. Obergefell’s lawsuit drew the lowest case number, putting his name ahead of the others from Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Thus has Jim Obergefell (pronounced “OH-ber-guh-fell”), mild-mannered real estate broker and art collector, become the poster child for the gay rights movement’s nationwide effort to legalize same-sex marriage.

Since the justices agreed in January to consider the case, his life has become a whirlwind of media interviews and speaking engagements. Vice President Joe Biden embraced him, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., told his story on the Senate floor as Obergefell looked on from the Senate gallery.

Jim Obergefell of Cincinnati is photographed in his living room. He and John Arthur married in Maryland because gay marriage is not legal in their home state of Ohio. After his husband died, Obergefell sued his state because Ohio won't allow his name on Arthur's death certificate. Now his case is in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo courtesy of The Enquirer/Carrie Cochran, via USA Today

Jim Obergefell of Cincinnati is photographed in his living room. He and John Arthur married in Maryland because gay marriage is not legal in their home state of Ohio. After his husband died, Obergefell sued his state because Ohio won’t allow his name on Arthur’s death certificate. Now his case is in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo courtesy of The Enquirer/Carrie Cochran, via USA Today

“I look at this as a way for me to honor John and to still protect John,” Obergefell said. “It keeps him, it keeps our marriage, our relationship, alive.”

That relationship started on New Year’s Eve 1993 at a party Arthur threw. From then on, they were inseparable.

“We were just John and Jim. We weren’t the flag-waving activists,” Obergefell recalls. They led an active social life mostly because of Arthur’s outgoing nature. “We would just collect friends wherever we went,” he says.

Then in 2011, Arthur’s health began to deteriorate. Within months, he was forced to get a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair. The Lou Gehrig’s diagnosis was devastating. But Arthur accepted it with grace.

“I can honestly say, not once did he complain. Not one single time,” Obergefell recaled. “He was always a glass-half-full person.”

The decision to turn their 20-year relationship into a marriage came suddenly after Edie Windsor — who had lost her spouse, Thea Spyer, to multiple sclerosis after a 40-year relationship — won her Supreme Court case against the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

The couple’s wedding required a medical jet funded by friends and family, with Arthur’s aunt, Paulette Roberts, on board to perform the brief ceremony. The plane landed, the rings were exchanged, and they were airborne again — a 3 1/2-hour round trip.

“It was all about wanting to say, ‘I do,'” Obergefell says. “It would have been far easier to take John six blocks to the courthouse.”

Within days of the wedding, a friend mentioned their story to a local civil rights lawyer, Alphonse Gerhardstein, who recognized their problem. When he came to the condominium the following Monday, he brought a blank death certificate to illustrate where Obergefell’s name would be missing; Ohio law would not consider him a surviving spouse.

“We both just thought, ‘That’s an indignity we shouldn’t have to suffer,'” Obergefell said.

While opponents argue that marriage exists for the purposes of procreation and child-rearing, Gerhardstein says, “Marriage is also the commitment that one person makes to his husband at the most critical time. You say ‘for better or worse,’ and then you preside over the last few months in a hospice setting. That’s what marriage is, too.”

If deciding to get married after the Windsor decision was easy, deciding to sue Ohio was a no-brainer — except for one problem that Arthur raised.

“He just kept saying, ‘You know, Jim, it’s all on you. I can’t do anything,'” Obergefell recalls. “He was in hospice care, bedridden. He was not going to be able to go to court.”

After caring around the clock for his partner-turned-husband, Obergefell has spent the past 18 months fighting the battle alone, just as Windsor did in New York. But unlike Windsor, who won back $363,000 in federal estate taxes that had been levied because the government did not recognize her marriage, Obergefell has little financial incentive — just the standard $255 death benefit and the potential to receive Arthur’s disability benefits once he retires.

“It isn’t about the money,” Obergefell said. “John’s final record as an Ohioan — as an American — deserves to be accurate. And our marriage — our legal marriage — deserves respect.”

Since the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in January — and particularly since Obergefell was listed as lead plaintiff last month — his life has become a blur of public appearances, interviews, photos and videos.

“I feel a bit of guilt, because this isn’t just about me,” he says.

But he has not shied from telling his story. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading gay rights organization, has signed him up to appear at several events and galas. Recounting Arthur’s demise at the first one in Washington early last month, Obergefell broke down and cried.

“I’ve never seen him not cry when he tells the story” of Arthur’s demise, says Fred Sainz, the groups’s vice president of communications. “As if that is not enough, government intrudes and says, ‘You’re not through with it yet. We’re going to add insult to injury.'”

Ohio doesn’t see its refusal to recognize Obergefell’s marriage in Maryland as an insult. Its court brief argues that the Constitution “has always allowed a state to choose its marriage laws over another state’s laws.” States and voters must be free to choose for themselves, it says — otherwise, “the court would erode the very federalist structure that made same-sex marriage possible.”

The state’s effort to keep him off the death certificate is what motivates Obergefell these days. He’s reminded of Arthur whenever he looks at their two rings, which he wears fused together. He recounts the day’s events to Arthur every night, out loud, before bed.

He knows that if the Supreme Court decides gays and lesbians have a right to marry and have their marriages from other states recognized, “This will be one of those landmark rulings.”

“I chuckle,” he said, “about law students and other people just having to learn how to pronounce Obergefell.”

(Richard Wolf writes for USA Today)

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  • Marrying the dying. The guy survived 18 months of in a hospice setting before shuffling off his mortal coil.

    Snarkers gotta snark.

  • “His life has become a blur of public appearances, interviews, photos and videos.”

    Yep. As expected. A story like that one, a poster boy like that one, a salesman with THAT kind of tear-jerker drama, well you just KNOW the Gay Marriage Cult was gonna put Mr. Obergefell among their top evangelists.

    But the fact is that what Mr. Obergefell is doing, he is doing AGAINST God. What he has done since 1993, he has done against God. No joke.

    Now we’ve **all** done stuff against God, me too. Sort of a Romans 3:23 thing, you know. And we all know somewhere what loneliness feels like, yes.

    But we need to be honest about stuff too. Gay “relationships”, gay “marriage”, are ALWAYS against God, according to the You-Know-What.

    Here’s a quick list of Bible verses. 10 seconds to read it, 10 seconds to understand it. Go click if you dare.

    http://www.witnessfortheworld.org/homont.html

    So let’s be honest. Gay marriage is killing America. We need help quick.

  • Apologies for the typo error. Typing too fast again. It’s always “Doc Anthony”, not “Doc America.”

  • This is great for the NRA and gun owners nationwide.

    If we are all forced to recognize homosexual marriage “recognized and legalized ” in/from other states, well then, Concealed Carry “legalized and recognized” in other states will have to be recognized in every state as well.

    Let us recognize constitutional rights.

    Well. well. well, let freedom ring.

  • If you have read the article, they got married BEFORE his death. If you want to be narrow minded at least get your facts straight so you don’t look ridiculous.

  • No ill will at all, Larry. We all like hearing a good story, a good drama. That’s what the Lifetime Channel is for.

    But this isn’t a good story at all. This is not a happy ending at all. This is something ***bad*** that is affecting this entire nation, and taking it down quickly, like a virus on steroids. This thing of forcing Ohio (or any other state) to do the Gay Marriage Cult’s bidding, has NO upsides to it.

    I don’t expect you to recognize or accept that assessment. I’m not even asking you to. But I am comfortable with pointing that out myself. Because honestly, somebody needs to point it out. Somebody somewhere. Just that simple.

  • What’s amazing is how stories like this go to show that gay marriage is NOT killing America and that in fact, they look much like straight people who want to be good citizens, kind individuals and loving families. Your worship of the Bible blinds you to the truth.

  • By the way Larry, you must hate Christians a lot, to make the kinds of accusations you do. Got a lotta baggage there with you. Want to talk about it sometime?

  • What would Jesus do? Would he judge or sit down and share a meal with them? If you want to preach at least be christian about it. Gay marriage is not killing the country it is the hatred that is so thoughtlessly spread to others.
    If, as the article says, marriage is made for childbearing and child rearing then we really need to crack down on babies born out of wedlock, divorce, and absentee parents. The pendulum swings both ways. You cannot denounce one without denouncing them all.

  • Larry,
    “Why all the ill will?”

    Good question. Here are a couple of solutions —

    Be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone…….Titus 3:2

    Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven………..Luke 6:37

  • Most all of us, at least as children, grow up wanting to be “good citizens”, “kind individuals”, and have “loving families.”

    But we also live in a fallen, broken, sinful world, and things happen. Some stuff we RNS readers, may happen to hear about, and some stuff only God will ever know about. So things get kinda screwed up sometimes, even with the BEST people, with the BEST circumstances, with the BEST of intentions. Sometimes sin gets in there and takes root.

    And sometimes, an entire nation somehow starts getting the virus or getting the addiction. We start calling good evil and evil good. We stop letting God’s Word be the final arbiter of what’s good and what’s not. We start saying God or Jesus or the Bible just plain got it wrong or made us gay or whatever. Nothing wrong with gay marriage, we say.

    Now our entire nation is about to officially say that, later this summer. We ARE in trouble, Cranmer. We just are.

  • It’s okay to share a table meal with them, Bobbi. Jesus would. You would. I would too.

    But that’s not what these folks are asking for, is it? Nope. They’re not asking for a table meal. They want something ELSE.

    The punchline on THIS story, the desired result on this story, is forcing the entire state of Ohio to officially recognize Gay Marriage. I’m sorry to say this, but there is even an element of exploiting a man’s death here — for just that one reason.

    This entire media story, as well written to the heartstrings as it is, is essentially a Sales-Pitch, an Evangelistic-Tract, a Marketing-Strategy. Why? To get you and I to accept gay marriage, and to agree that the State of Ohio (and all other sttes) MUST be FORCED to accept and do their official kowtow to Gay Marriage.

    I’m sorry but I don’t want to play along with that marketing strategy, Bobbi. There is something deathly wrong with it, and it’s not doing our nation any good.

  • I don’t hate Christians at all. I just don’t take ones like yourself seriously. Those who define their religious belief in terms of who they hate and what absolute nonsense they accept as a given (and want others to accept under compulsion). The overwhelming majority of the faith does not believe as you do. Although you like to think you speak on behalf of all Christendom, you don’t.

    Fanatics like yourself want to give your religious views color of law. That requires opposition. It is the duty of anyone living in a free society to oppose such nonsense. It is also the sheer dishonesty of people like yourself which requires opposition. You consider Christianity as a license to hate, lie and force others to accept your views. It is not worthy of respect or civility.

  • Because if you are not armed, you will be forced to marry a person of the same sex!!!!!!

    BB, just when I think Bible thumping bigots like yourself could not sink any lower, you show me that the abyss of silliness are almost infinite.

  • You seem particularly obsessed with the subject of homosexuality. It seems like that’s all you ever post about on this site. I’m also curious about why you seem to think you’re such an expert on this subject if you’re really heterosexual. Methinks you are protesting too loudly about your own sexual preferences.

  • I don’t believe you’re sorry one bit and I don’t believe for a second you really give a rat’s butt about any “exploiting” of this man’s death.

  • Anthony,

    ” We ARE in trouble…. We just are.”

    There’s no need to be fearful Anthony. Here’s why —

    1. Man’s ways are of the Lord, so how can we understand our own ways?…..Proverbs 20:24

    2. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love……..1 John 4:18

    Because no. 2 is so important, it should be repeated —

    There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love……..1 John 4:18

    3. And so we know and ‘rely’ on the love God has for us…….1 John 4:16

    4. So then, banish anxiety from your heart…..Ecclesiastes 11:10

    That’s enough for now. They’re good to go.

  • Your Bible interpretation is outdated, misguided and misapplied. The writers of biblical scripture thought homosexuality was sinful just as they thought the world was flat. God also failed to clue the writers of biblical scripture in on the fact that slavery was unjust and that women shouldn’t be considered inferior. And let’s not even talk about how the writer’s of biblical scripture advocated that races be kept separate. As a Christian, I consider the Bible an inspired guidebook but it is not the final authority on all matters.

  • Well, there is no such thing as a gay marriage…..it is a political illusion to get the gay lobby off their porch. You haven’t figured that out yet?

  • Because marriage is a historically defined word that never included same sex couples. It is immoral to redefine the word to add something that does not belong. The door is now opened for adding any vile union to the word “marriage”.

  • Brent,

    “As a Christian, I consider the Bible an inspired guidebook but it is not the final authority on all matters.”

    I sometimes remind readers here what Paul said about his own writings, which helps explain your very comment —
    1. …our knowledge is partial and incomplete…
    2. …we see things imperfectly…
    3. All that I know now is partial and incomplete…
    (1 Corinthians 13:9,12)

    I think we need to discover or uncover new and better ways of understanding an issue than rely solely on scripture, which according to Paul, is too incomplete and imperfect.

  • The world is broken because millions of people choose to live thier lives based on make believe stories, created by men, a long ago. The real world would suit our future MUCH better.

  • If there’s no such thing as gay marriage why are there so many gay marriages? You make no sense.

  • Doc Anthony — You and yours keep saying that we’re “in trouble” due to gay marriage, but there’s no proof of that. Anywhere. Not so long ago people like you complained about how promiscuous gay men allegedly were. Now they want to settle down, get married and in some cases raise children and yet you’re still not happy. Here’s a tip: MYOB. And stop obsessing about what gay men get up to in the bedroom.

  • Doc Anthony — Let’s say that I live in Ohio and I get married to my fiance Janet. In getting married are we “forcing the entire state of Ohio to officially recognize” our marriage? Of course not. Most people won’t even know, or care, that we got married. The same goes for gay couples. They’re getting married all over the country now and you don’t even know about it. Even if a married gay couple lived next door to you, could they “force” you to recognize their marriage. No way! And guess what — they wouldn’t care whether or not you recognized their marriage. What’s not doing our nation any good are folks like you who won’t just let people live their lives without you not being able to MYOB.

  • Be Brave — Your inappropriately named because you’re the exact opposite of brave. You’re a coward. Gays are getting married so you need to get a gun? While you’re at it, get a grip.

  • Christian,

    ” In getting married… Most people won’t even know, or care, that we got married. ”

    Interesting way of observing the issue.

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