From Heartbreak to History: How One Gay Spouse’s Dying Wish Might Change the Law For All Time

In just a few days, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in one of the most important civil rights cases in a generation: Obergefell v. Hodges. After more than 20 years of struggle for marriage equality in the US, gay rights advocates are hopeful that, one way or another, Obergefell will legalize same-sex marriage in all fifty states.

And indicators suggest there’s a very good chance.

Marriage equality before the Court

Obergefell is one of four marriage equality cases before the Court. The other three cases, Bourke v. Beshear, DeBoer v. Snyder and Tanco v. Haslam, originated in Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee, respectively. Each of the four cases turns on one or both of two essential questions: whether state bans on same-sex marriage are constitutional, and if they are constitutional, whether states that continue to uphold their bans on same-sex marriage must recognize marriages performed in other states.

According to SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston, “When a final decision is issued, it will have the Obergefell v. Hodges title, simply because that case was the first to reach the Justices.” But fate may have chosen Obergefell for reasons beyond mere clerical efficiency. The love story at the center of Obergefell v. Hodges is a heartbreaking tale of love, loss, and the simple desire for dignity in death.

A love story

Jim Obergefell and John Arthur had been together twenty years, but the couple wanted to wait to get married until their union would be legally recognized in their home state of Ohio. But they were running out of time. As the Los Angeles Times reported,

“[t]wo years ago, when the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, [Obergefell and Arthur] began to reconsider. The fact that Arthur had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a fatal, crippling neurological disorder often called Lou Gehrig’s disease after the baseball player, added “a much greater sense of urgency,” Obergefell said.

Glenn Hartong, The Cincinnati Enquirer (AP)
Glenn Hartong, The Cincinnati Enquirer (AP)

“With John’s death approaching, it just gave us more of an impetus and more of a desire to have our relationship validated and recognized,” Obergefell recalled. “We suddenly saw the opportunity to say ‘I do’ and have it matter from a legal and governmental perspective. But if John had not been dying from ALS, we still likely would have gotten married because after 20 and a half years together we wanted to be treated the same as other couples.”

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