A federal judge has ruled that Ohio state must recognize the out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples for determining spousal status on state death certificates. What does this mean and how did it come about?
Cincinnati-based federal judge Timothy Black ruled on Monday that Ohio could not lawfully refuse to recognize the same-sex marriage of a couple who were married out of state, but only for the purpose of recording that marriage on a death certificate:
Dying with an incorrect death certificate that prohibits the deceased Plaintiffs from being buried with dignity constitutes irreparable harm. Moreover, there is absolutely no evidence that the State of Ohio or its citizens will be harmed by the issuance of a permanent injunction restraining the enforcement of the marriage recognition ban provisions against the Plaintiffs in this case. Without an injunction, however, the harm to Plaintiffs is severe. Plaintiffs are not currently accorded the same dignity and recognition as similarly situated opposite-sex couples. Moreover, without a permanent injunction, Plaintiffs’ legally valid marriages would be susceptible to amended incorrect recording in Ohio as not existing. Balanced against this severe and irreparable harm to Plaintiffs is the truth that there is no evidence in the record that the issuance of a permanent injunction will cause substantial harm to the public.
The opinion is designed to read narrowly but Judge Black notes that it is virtually impossible to maintain Ohio’s ban on recognition of out-of-state marriages because Ohio has historically recognized marriages from out of state that are not recognized within, for instance marriages between cousins.
As such, while Black may have tailored the ruling to answer the specific question of marriages and death certificates, there is a significant overlap with the general question of marriage recognition. There is also a heavy body of reasoning in Black’s opinion that would serve to undermine the gay marriage ban in its entirety, including noting the political powerlessness of gay people, the fact that there appears no legitimate purpose for denying marriage recognition, and the fact that a same-sex marriage ban creates particularized harm against same-sex couples.
What’s more, Black’s ruling actually serves to hit out at the remaining portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (Section 2) which articulates that no state can be forced to recognize a same-sex marriage carried out in another state. To say this is a big ruling that goes beyond its narrow, short term effect, is perhaps to understate things then.
Attorney General Mike DeWine has announced that the state will appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, defending the ban as a matter of upholding the Ohio Constitution and the fact that the ban was enacted by a 2004 constitutional amendment. As such, this will not be the end of this particular line of legal arguments.
The plaintiff in the case is Jim Obergfell. Care2 readers will remember Obergfell as the man who in July flew to Maryland with his partner of 20 years, John Arthur, in order that he and Arthur, who suffered ASL and was dying, could fulfill a long-held wish to marry. After marrying, Obergfell and Arthur petitioned Black’s court to have their marriage recognized upon the impending eventuality of Arthur’s death. Black agreed with the couple that to deny them recognition on Arthur’s death certificate would be unconstitutional and issued an injunction to prevent state officials from applying the ban in this one case. Mr. Arthur died in October.
While this ruling doesn’t entirely end the discrimination same-sex couples in Ohio face, the fact that Mr. Arthur’s legacy has today meant that other same-sex couples can have peace of mind knowing that the recognition he and Mr. Obergfell fought so hard to achieve is theirs, well, it is a touching piece of history.
Meanwhile, the state is gearing up for a gay marriage battle in 2014 with Ohio equality groups announcing last week that they have gathered enough signatures to put the issue before voters. Hopefully then, 2014 will be a significant one for all same-sex couples in Ohio.
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