Jim Obergefell woke up before sunrise, met with supporters and headed to the Supreme Court of the United States, where he got in line and awaited his seat at the forefront of history. It’s a routine he has perfected.
“The nerves hit for the first time last week on Monday, first time in the courtroom for decisions, and they’re reaching fever pitch,” he said.
As the lead plaintiff in the case challenging state same-sex marriage bans, Obergefell has become the face of the debate.
Obergefell sued the state of Ohio to get his name listed on his late husband's death certificate. He married his partner of almost 21 years, John Arthur, in Maryland a few months before Arthur died. While same-sex marriage is legal in Maryland, Ohio refused to recognize the union. The Buckeye State amended its constitution in 2004 to prohibit gay marriage from being "valid in or recognized by" the state.
He decided to challenge the ban after learning that Ohio would not put his name on his husband’s death certificate.
“We wanted our marriage, our lawful marriage and our 20-year relationship to exist,” he said.
Obergefell said his motivation is about “dignity and the respect,” not financial gain. If Ohio recognizes his marriage he will receive $255 in Social Security benefits, and potentially a small disability benefit when he retires, according to Obergefell.
However, the impact will be wide-ranging. The outcome of his case will impact the marriage laws for millions of Americans.
“John and I started this fight from a very personal place. It was about us. It was about our marriage, our relationship, but it is so much bigger, so much more important than just the two of us,” said Obergefell.
His opponents argue that the definition of marriage should be left to the states, the court should not interfere with states’ rights, and that bans ensure traditional marriage.
"This is a much bigger idea than any particular couple and what a marriage might mean to them or to their children. And when you change the definition of marriage to de-link the idea that we're binding children with their biological mom and dad, that has consequences," said Special Assistant Attorney John Bursch, on behalf of the states during oral arguments at the Supreme Court.
There are two main issues at stake. The first is whether the Constitution prohibits states from discriminating between gay and straight couples for purposes of marriage. The second is whether states are required to recognize legal same-sex marriages from other states, like Obergefell’s marriage, even if the states don’t grant licenses themselves.
Since the exact day of the announcement isn’t made public, Obergefell will continue to show up at the court and wait for a decision.
“I need to be in this courtroom when this decision comes out. I need to hear it from the judges’ mouth,” he said.