Today, June 24, 2016, marks the one year anniversary of the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which established marriage equality nationwide.
As part of the tour for their new book Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality, Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the case, and Debbie Cenziper, a Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post journalist, joined us on June 15, along with NPR’s American Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg to discuss the case. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the event and in honor of the anniversary of the case I’m here to tell you all about it!
Before we begin, here’s a bit of background on the case, as it was listed in the event description: “Jim Obergefell and John Arthur, who was dying from ALS, married in Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal. But their home state, Ohio, refused to recognize their union, or even list Obergefell’s name on Arthur’s death certificate. The legal fight that followed became the most important gay rights case in history.”
And in case you’re unfamiliar with the case, two questions were argued:
(1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?
(2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex that was legally licensed and performed in another state?
The decision was that “the Fourteenth Amendment requires both marriage licensing and recognition for same-sex couples.” The case was decided 5-4 in favor of Obergefell, with Justice Kennedy, Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, Justice Sotomayor, and Justice Kagan as the majority and Justice Roberts, Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito as the minority.1
This event took place just a few short days after the massacre of 49 people at Pulse Nightclub, a popular gay club in Orlando, which is where Totenberg began the conversation. Obergefell and Cenziper’s book was released on June 14, and in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, Obergefell said that although it has been difficult, “I have found solace, I have found comfort in talking about this book.”
Obergefell and Arthur were together for twenty years, and according to Obergefell they had occasionally thought about getting married, but they wanted it to “carry legal weight;” they wanted it to mean something to the government, not just their friends and family. Two things changed their minds, however. The first came in March of 2013 when Arthur entered home hospice care and the second in June of the same year when the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, ruling “that the federal government had to provide married gay couples all the benefits offered to all other couples that year.”
Their home state of Ohio did not have marriage equality at the time, and so they began looking into other options. Because of its proximity, as well as family in the state, Obergefell and Arthur considered New York, but ultimately decided against it. With Arthur’s ill health it would not be possible for both Obergefell and Arthur to apply for the marriage license in person, which New York requires. After plenty of research the couple decided on Maryland, which only requires one person to be physically present to apply for a marriage license.
Finding a state which allowed only one person to be there to physically apply was only part of the challenge, though. Arthur’s health was still declining, and in order to get to Maryland they needed to charter a medical jet, which was a significant expense. Obergefell reached out to friends on Facebook to see if anyone he knew had any connections that could help them get the flight they needed, but unfortunately no one did. Their family and friends, however, had a wonderful alternative: they were able to raise enough money to completely cover the cost of the jet so that Obergefell and Arthur could get married.
Obergefell, Arthur, Arthur’s Aunt Paulette who would be officiating the ceremony, two pilots, and a nurse flew to Maryland on July 11, 2013. According to Obergefell they landed, they were married, and “within 35 or 40 minutes of landing [they] were back in the air” to return to Ohio. Within days of being married, their legal fight, which culminated in Obergefell v. Hodges, began. Although being involved in a lawsuit such as this was “never in [Obergefell’s] wildest dreams,” the case will most certainly go down in history as an utterly groundbreaking event.
The numerous legal battles fought after Obergefell and Arthur were married are detailed in Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality by Jim Obergefell and Debbie Cenziper. After discussing the case and the book, Totenberg opened the discussion to questions. A number of great questions were asked, but the most moving questions by far were from couples who have been able to get married since the decision came down in Obergefell v. Hodges. The question and answer session was ended with a short discussion on what challenges the LGBT community continues to face. With the recent slew of “bathroom bills” among many other pieces of legislation, Obergefell believes that the biggest priority is the rights and safety of transgender individuals and that “education and telling stories” is very important in moving forward with LGBT rights.
After the discussion there was a small reception in the lobby. Unfortunately Nina Totenberg had another event to attend, so she couldn’t stay and chat, but both Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell were able to speak with those who attended the event.
Fellow Smithsonian Associates intern Dakota Collina, who also attended the event, and I were both very happy to stay until the last of the non-staff attendees had left in order to chat with Obergefell and get a picture. Being able to shake hands with a man who will no doubt go down in American history was marvelous; it has definitely been one of the highlights of my time here so far!
We all were thrilled with how the event went. Jim Obergefell, Debbie Cenziper, and Nina Totenberg are all wonderful and engaging speakers. There was laughter and some tears, but the atmosphere in the room all evening was truly a warm and heartfelt one. Being able to hear this story from the man who experienced it was an absolutely incredible experience, and I can’t wait to finally read Love Wins!
When I purchased my copy of the book I was asked what I wanted as an inscription, other than Obergefell’s signature. I thought for a moment because I really wasn’t sure, but then it came to me. During the discussion a young woman mentioned that she and her wife had recently been married and they used a quote from the decision in their wedding program. She asked Obergefell if he had a favorite quote from the decision and his favorite quote, just four words, was what I decided to have inscribed.
“It is so ordered.”