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Quest for Dignity Behind Supreme Court Case on Gay Marriage

Plaintiff Jim Obergefell holds a photo of his late husband, John Arthur, as he speaks to members of the media after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states, outside the Supreme Court in Washington, June

When Jim Obergefell and John Arthur married in 2013, marriage between homosexual partners was legal in only a handful of states — and not in Ohio, where they lived.

So their wedding took place in a plane on the tarmac of the airport in Baltimore, Maryland, where gay marriage was legal. The pair were married by Arthur’s aunt; two airplane pilots and a nurse were the only witnesses.

Ten minutes after the wedding, the couple flew home to Cincinnati, Ohio.

There was an urgency about the ceremony. Arthur had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS — commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — and it would kill him a few months later. On the day of the wedding, he was confined to his bed; the plane was a specially equipped medical charter.

About dignity

The landmark gay-marriage ruling issued Friday by the Supreme Court started with Arthur’s death certificate. Would it list him as married or single? The state of Ohio said “single.”

But Arthur had been Obergefell’s partner for 21 years, and it meant a lot to both men that the death certificate read “married.”

Even before Arthur died, Obergefell took the issue to court. It was a matter of dignity “and the respect we expect from the state we call home,” he said.

An initial ruling went his way, but the state of Ohio appealed. And that is when a real estate agent, wearing oversized glasses and a bow tie on Friday, became an activist.

"I'm just Jim," he told the Washington Post newspaper. “I just stood up for our marriage.”

And he stood up all the way through the lower courts to the Supreme Court, where his case was bundled with three other cases from states where gay marriage was not allowed. Obergefell was the lead plaintiff.

During June, he got to the court early on days when decisions were issued to wait in line for a seat so he could be there when the ruling in his case was announced.

'Changed the Country'

Obergefell talked to reporters in front of the court building Friday after the ruling. “Today’s ruling from the Supreme Court affirms what millions across this country already know to be true in our hearts: Our love is equal,” he said.

Someone handed him a cellphone. The voice on other end was one known to almost everyone in the world. “Your leadership on this changed the country,” President Barack Obama said.

Obergefell bent his head to speak into the phone. "I really appreciate that, Mr. President. It's really been an honor for me to be involved in this fight and to have been able to, you know, fight for my marriage and live up to my commitments to my husband."

The ruling means that “married” will stay on Arthur’s death certificate. He will always be officially linked to Obergefell — and no local, state or federal government can change that.

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