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 that right.”