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The decision stems from a case brought by John Arthur (right) and Jim Obergefell.
In a decision issued on December 23, 2013, Cincinnati, Ohio federal district judge Timothy Black found the state's ban on the recognition of same-sex marriages unconstitutional insofar as it prohibits the state from issuing death certificates that acknowledge legal same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Although the ruling is narrow, it has very wide implications. It is certain to lead to further challenges to Ohio's statute and constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and will undoubtedly influence litigation concerning whether states may refuse to recognize legal same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.
As Amanda Lee Myers reports for the Associated Press, Judge Black's ruling may apply only to death certificates, but "his statements about Ohio's gay-marriage ban are sweeping, unequivocal, and are expected to incite further litigation challenging the law."
In issuing a permanent order requiring the state to permit death certificates to include information about same-sex spouses, Black cited the Supreme Court's June decision in Windsor that struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.
"[T]he question presented," Black wrote, "is whether a state can do what the federal government cannot--i.e., discriminate against same-sex couples . . . simply because the majority of the voters don't like homosexuality (or at least didn't in 2004). Under the Constitution of the United States, the answer is no."
In a statement that will have profound implications for gay and lesbian couples who married in a state that permits same-sex marriage but reside in one that does not, Black wrote that "once you get married lawfully in one state, another state cannot summarily take your marriage away." He said the right to remain married is recognized as a fundamental liberty in the U.S. Constitution.
"When a state effectively terminates the marriage of a same-sex couple married in another jurisdiction, it intrudes into the realm of private marital, family, and intimate relations specifically protected by the Supreme Court," he wrote.
Black's decision stems from a lawsuit filed in July by two gay Ohio men whose spouses had recently died and wanted to be recognized on their death certificates as married. Another plaintiff in the case is a funeral director who feared prosecution if he included the surviving spouses' names on death certificates.
Black asserted that "there is absolutely no evidence that the state of Ohio or its citizens will be harmed" by his ruling but that without it, the harm would be severe for two men who filed the lawsuit because it would strip them of the dignity and recognition given to opposite-sex couples. He also pointed out that death certificates are often evidentiary in decisions regarding insurance, pension, and probate issues.
Black ordered the state not only to recognize the marriages of the two men who filed the lawsuit on their respective spouses' death certificate but also to communicate his orders to anyone in the state involved in completing death certificates.
He also questioned whether the state constitutional amendment furthered any legitimate interest, noting that "the fact that a form of discrimination has been 'traditional' is a reason to be more skeptical of its rationality."
He added, "No hypothetical justification can overcome the clear primary purpose and practical effect of the marriage bans . . . to disparage and demean the dignity of same-sex couples in the eyes of the state and the wider community."
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said the state will file an appeal with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, also based in Cincinnati.
The case arose from the dramatic story of John Arthur and Jim Obergefell's marriage in July 2013. Obergefell and his terminally ill partner Arthur traveled at great expense and inconvenience via air ambulance from Cincinnati to be married in Maryland on July 11, but when returned to their home, Ohio refused to recognize their legal marriage.
Thus, on July 19, the couple filed suit in federal court asking that the state of Ohio be compelled to acknowledge their marriage. In particular, the lawsuit requested that the Ohio Registrar of death certificates be required to record Arthur's status at death as "married" and Obergefell be listed as his "surviving spouse."
On July 23, Judge Black issued a temporary restraining order against the state of Ohio that granted the request of the couple in regard to the death certificate. Subsequently, another surviving spouse and a funeral director were allowed to join the suit.
John Arthur died on October 22, 2013. His death certificate listed Jim Obergefell as his surviving spouse.
Judge Black's ruling in the case, known as Obergefell v. Wymyslo may be found here.