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A unique Maryland marriage sits at center of Supreme Court case considering gay nuptials

A unique Maryland marriage sits at center of Supreme Court case considering gay nuptials
Jim Obergefell and John Arthur married on a medical jet at BWI in July. Arthur's ALS made it difficult to travel, but they had to make the trip because Ohio doesn't allow same-sex marriage. (Photo courtesy of Jim Obergefell)

When Jim Obergefell and partner John Arthur said "I do" in a small medical jet on the tarmac at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport in the summer of 2013, they knew it was a powerful turning point.

"That was the moment in time that we could, in public and in front of our government, say we are committed to each other, we love each other, we are a team, we're a married couple," Obergefell said.

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What they didn't know was that their moment might be taught one day in history and legal courses about how same-sex marriage became the law of the land.

After the couple returned from Maryland to Ohio, they filed a lawsuit seeking to force their home state to recognize their Maryland marriage license. The case, challenged and appealed in lower courts, has now risen all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Arguments in the case — Obergefell v. Hodges — are set to be heard by the court's justices next month, and legal observers say it could result by June in a ruling that gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to marry nationwide.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine something like this could happen," Obergefell said in a recent interview with The Baltimore Sun, during which he choked up as he discussed Arthur's death just months after their wedding — and amid the legal fight — from symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. "Every day I miss him. I wish he were here to see where we are and what's happening. But I also know I'm doing this in large part for him. It's my way of honoring him and keeping my promise to him when we said, 'I do.' "

Advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Maryland said the state and its residents — who in 2012 were among the first in the country to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote — are being honored by Obergefell's efforts too.

"I remember Jim and John's story and how proud I was of our state that they were able to come here and legally wed," said Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's largest LGBT advocacy organization. "This case underscores how the issue of marriage equality transcends state borders and why it is imperative for this issue to be resolved by the Supreme Court."

"We should be rightly proud of the role that Maryland played," said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who helped legalize same-sex marriage here and believes the Supreme Court will legalize it nationally. "When the Obergefell decision is taught in schools across the country, people will know that Obergefell was able to come to Maryland for a wedding and a marriage several years before the Supreme Court acted."

Maryland already is in history books for having legalized interracial marriage months before the Supreme Court made the practice legal nationwide in the now-famous Loving v. Virginia case in 1967, said Raskin, a constitutional law professor at American University, and Obergefell's case will be remembered similarly.

"This decision will almost certainly be the Loving v. Virginia for same-sex couples," Raskin said. "From the beginning, the whole issue has had history written all over it. You could feel the political, cultural shift. You can see history in the making."

Obergefell and Arthur's story is one of six being used in the current Supreme Court case to argue against the constitutionality of four state bans, and follows a separate ruling by the court in 2013 that struck down a key provision of the federal law banning recognition of such marriages.

That decision, in United States v. Windsor, ushered in a string of lower-court rulings across the country in favor of gay and lesbian couples' arguments that state same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional. It also preceded a few lower court rulings that upheld state bans.

Among those were the bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee and Ohio now being challenged in the Obergefell case.

Opponents of gay marriage argue that changing that traditional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman further undermines an already threatened institution and divorces it from procreation. Some argue on religious grounds that gay marriage promotes what they believe is the sin of homosexuality.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has pointed out that a majority of voters there voted to ban gay marriage and contends that states should make their own decisions.

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Attorneys challenging same-sex marriage bans in recent years routinely look for gay and lesbian couples with the most compelling stories to serve as plaintiffs, and Obergefell and Arthur offered just that, said Rachel Cleves, an associate professor of history at the University of Victoria who has studied the history of same-sex marriage.

Their story is similar in many ways to the story of Thea Spyer and her widow, Edith Windsor, who became the lead plaintiff in the successful challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act that went to the Supreme Court, Cleves said.

Roberta "Robbie" Kaplan, the attorney who won the Windsor case and will argue in the Obergefell case, likely noticed the similarities, Cleves said.

Windsor and Spyer were together for decades, as Obergefell and Arthur were. Spyer's death helped highlight Windsor's unequal treatment under the law, compared with straight married couples. Arthur's death has highlighted the same for him and Obergefell.

Cleves said Americans have "narrated" their perception of same-sex marriage through personal stories, which can drive change.

"Having a human face and story we can relate to makes an impact," she said.

Obergefell said he has been humbled since his and Arthur's wedding by people telling him that their story has that power.

He said the fight is about so many other stories, including those of all the other plaintiffs in the case, but acknowledged the appeal of his and Arthur's relationship.

Together for more than two decades and facing Arthur's last days, the couple decided they wanted to marry shortly after the Windsor decision was issued. Barred from marrying in Ohio, they began looking at their options, which were few because of Arthur's difficulty traveling.

When they decided on Maryland, friends and family helped them raise enough money to charter the medical jet. Arthur's aunt, Paulette Roberts, married them on the tarmac shortly after their arrival at BWI.

"I'm overjoyed. I'm very proud to be an American and be able to openly share my love for the record," Arthur said at the time. "And I feel like the luckiest guy in the world."

The couple returned home and reveled in using the word "husband," Obergefell said, even as they began their fight to make it official, including their desire to see their marital status reflected on Arthur's Ohio death certificate.

"Everyone out there can relate to loving someone and building a life together and wanting that relationship to be recognized and honored," Obergefell said. "It's nice when people say that John and I have been such a great image or face for this fight, and I think what our story did was just bring it down to what it really is all about. We're all humans. We all deserve respect. We all deserve the right to marry the person we love.

"If we are able to be that face, to open hearts and open minds, I can't think of a better thing to do."

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