Ohio ordered to recognize same-sex couple’s marriage

A federal district court ruled yesterday that an Ohio constitutional amendment limiting marriage to “between one man and one woman” likely violates the United States Constitution’s guarantee that no state law can deny a person the equal protection of the laws.

The plaintiffs in this case were James Obergefell and John Arthur, Cincinnati residents who have been living in a committed relationship for over twenty years. Arthur is a hospice patient who is currently terminally ill from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). On July 11, 2013, Obergefell and Arthur flew to Maryland on a plane equipped with the necessary medical equipment and staff. They got married on the tarmac before returning to Cincinnati that same day and their marriage is recognized by Maryland and by the federal government pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in United States v. Windsor.

However, Obergefell and Arthur’s marriage is not recognized by Ohio, where a state constitutional amendment passed by voter initiative in 2004 forbids the recognition of same-sex marriages. As such, Arthur’s death certificate will read “unmarried” and Obergefell will not be listed as his surviving spouse. They sued to obtain the right for his certificate to be properly recorded, arguing that they “have been in love for more than twenty years. They very much want the world to officially remember and record their union as a married couple.”

While Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine defended the law in court, Cincinnati’s vital statistics registrar Dr. Camille Jones declined to do so because the Ohio law was “discriminatory.”

Judge Timothy Black agreed with the married couple, writing that the amendment served no legitimate purpose other than to treat same-sex marriages differently. Typically, Ohio will recognize any out-of-state marriage even if Ohio would not authorize such a marriage itself. For example, Ohio law does not allow marriage between minors, but the state does recognize out-of-state marriages between minors so long as they are valid where entered into. In light of this legal landscape Judge Black posed the question “How then can Ohio, especially given the historical status of Ohio law, single out same sex marriages as ones it will not recognize? The short answer is that Ohio cannot.”

In his decision, Judge Black invoked much of the same reasoning that the Supreme Court used last month in finding the Defense of Marriage Act’s definitions of marriage and spouse unconstitutional. Citing that case and others, he argued that the only purpose of the Ohio constitutional amendment was to impose inequality and “make gay citizens unequal under the law.” Concluding that the law imposed a stigma, Judge Black wrote, “It is beyond cavil that it is constitutionally prohibited to single out and disadvantage an unpopular group.”

Judge Black issued a temporary restraining order that applied only to Obergefell and Arthur, prohibiting the Ohio governor and attorney general from enforcing Ohio law and ordering the Cincinnati Registrar to only accept a death certificate that lists Arthur as married with Obergefell as his surviving spouse.

There is currently no word if Ohio Governor John Kasich intends to appeal the district court’s decision. While Judge Black’s ruling is precedent only for his district court, his reasoning may be persuasive on other courts where similar cases are being heard.