Half-Dozen Same Sex Marriage Cases in One Court Are Pushing for LGBT Rights

Cases head to appeals court calling for marriage equality and dignity.

John Arthur and Jim Obergefell have a tarmac wedding in Maryland. (Photo: 'Partners Marry on Tarmac'/'The Huffington Post')

Aug 6, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

It’s tough to choose the most emotionally searing case from the list of gay marriage–equality lawsuits that were being appealed in court on Wednesday, but the love story of James Obergefell and John Arthur is a contender.

The couple had been together for nearly two decades when Arthur was diagnosed with an incurable illness that inspired them to rush to an altar in a state that would recognize their love—the Ohio couple flew to Maryland. When the day came, Arthur was too ill to get off the plane, so they were married right there on the tarmac.

Three months later, Arthur died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the state of Ohio decided not to recognize their runway nuptials.

Obergefell’s case is one of six same-sex marriage cases being presented on the same day in front of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth District. The cases come from Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, and Kentucky. They all revolve around state bans on gay marriage, or states’ refusal to recognize the unions even when they were performed in states where it is legal.

The marathon hearing is unprecedented: It is the largest number of marriage-equality cases to be heard together in one day by the same federal panel, said James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, who’s representing Obergefell as well as three other plaintiffs.

The protections that come with marriage are important all the time, said Esseks, but they become especially crucial in times of crisis and when people die.

In Arthur’s case, the couple knew they didn’t have much time with the degenerative, incurable condition. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA in 2013, so that July, they boarded a medically equipped plane to make their bond official.

When they returned home as a married couple, Obergefell was informed that he would not be listed as Arthur’s spouse on his death certificate. Arthur would be classified as “single” because the state of Ohio didn’t recognize their marriage.

“No couple should have to live through the uncertainty that John and I did in the most painful moments of our lives,” said Obergefell in a statement. “I will fight to preserve John’s last wish to have our marriage respected. And I fight for all caring and devoted Ohio couples, too.”

Obergefell fought by getting a district court to issue an order essentially demanding that the state include him as Arthur’s spouse on the death certificate. He won, and when his partner died only three months after their wedding, he died as an official married man. But the state has appealed the ruling.

Telling a man with only a few months to live that his husband can’t be listed on his death certificate? “That is an indignity that is cruel,” said Esseks. “These guys are a striking example of the kinds of harm that same sex-couples all over the country are facing.”

Cases from all four states reached the appeals level within a few months of one another, so the court could have decided to just address the first in line, Esseks said. It could have made a ruling on that case and let that judgment stand as precedent for all the rest.

By hearing plaintiffs from all the cases, the court is showing that it takes these issues very seriously, he said. All the people involved have had their lives “affected or compromised” in some way by the ban on gay marriage or recognition of these unions, and when presented all together it rolls into a very powerful display.

But there are quite a few ways the court’s decision could play out in the six cases, some of which have multiple plaintiffs whose fates hang in the balance.

The three-judge panel hearing the case includes Martha Craig Daughtrey of Tennessee, Jeffrey Sutton of Ohio, and Deborah Cook of Ohio. Cook and Sutton were both appointed by President George W. Bush, while Daughtrey was a Clinton pick—though appointments haven’t always dictated how a judge will rule on gay marriage.

A split decision from the court could mean that gay marriage would still be banned in the four states, but that those states would be forced to recognize same-sex couples who were married in states where it is legal, said Esseks. If the judges rule against gay marriage, it would mean these unions were still banned and unconstitutional.

For Esseks, the “big win” would be the court deciding that all the states must lift the ban on same-sex marriage, as well as recognize unions performed in other states. But this still wouldn’t be the final word. The state governments would mostly likely file stays (if the court didn’t stay the decision itself), thus delaying any real action on the case, said Esseks.

In fact, while a decision from the court of appeals is important, there won’t be much real change until a ruling comes down from the Supreme Court, Esseks said. He expects it to hear a gay marriage case by next year or at the very latest, 2016.

Although the Supreme Court has no obligation to take one of these cases, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the justices wouldn’t “duck” a gay marriage case.

“I think the court will not do what they did in the old days when they continually ducked the issue of miscegenation,” said Ginsburg. “If a case is properly before the court, they will take it.”

A decision on Wednesday’s court of appeals hearing isn’t expected for at least a few weeks.

So far 19 states as well as Washington, D.C., have legalized same-sex marriage. Many gay newlyweds are stuck in legal limbo as an ongoing cycle of stays and appeals halts any final findings on the issue.