James Obergefell and John Arthur were lawfully married in Maryland in 2013.
They were residents of the state of Ohio, but Ohio would not recognize
marriages of same-sex couples. However, by Ohio law, if a marriage is
valid in another state, even if not normally valid under Ohio law, Ohio
would recognize the marriage (such as, marriages between minors or first
cousins). Even so, Ohio refused to recognize James and John’s marriage,
so the couple filed suit against the state of Ohio.
At the time, John suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS also known as
Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and was dying. When John died, James wanted to be recognized as the surviving
spouse so he could receive whatever benefits any other surviving spouse
could receive by law. A preliminary restraining order was granted to James
and John by District Judge Timothy Black preventing the Ohio Registrar
from accepting any death certificate regarding John unless it listed his
marital status as married and James as John’s surviving spouse.
Judge Black stated, "Throughout Ohio's history, Ohio law has
been clear: a marriage solemnized outside of Ohio is valid in Ohio if
it is valid where solemnized…" Black also noted that certain
marriages between cousins or minors, while unlawful if performed in Ohio,
were recognized by Ohio if lawful when solemnized in other states.
Other cases from Ohio with similar circumstances to James and John were
also occurring in Ohio, as well as Kentucky. These cases were ultimately
combined into one case known as
Obergefell vs. Hodges, and were heard by the Sixth Circuit Court of the United States Justice
system. The Sixth Circuit Court ruled against the plaintiffs stating,
"Not one of the plaintiffs' theories, however, makes the case
for constitutionalizing the definition of marriage and for removing the
issue from the place it has been since the founding: in the hands of state
voters." The plaintiffs appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
The United States Supreme Court, in a five-to-four decision overturned
the Sixth Circuit Court’s decision. The majority of the Justices
decided that banning same-sex marriages and failure to recognize same-sex
marriage were violations of the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection
Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Writing for the plaintiff’s Justice Kennedy wrote:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest
ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming
a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.
As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies
a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men
and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that
they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment
for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness,
excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask
for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them