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US Supreme Court rules in favor of gay marriage nationwide

Spencer Kimball, CincinnatiJune 26, 2015

The US Supreme Court has ruled in favor of marriage equality. Though same-sex couples can now marry nationwide, LGBT Americans remain vulnerable to discrimination in other areas of life.

Supreme Court USA Jubel Homo-Ehe San Francisco
Image: Josh Edelson/Afp/Getty Images

Jim Obergefell was never an activist.

He led the mild-mannered life typical of people in Ohio. Obergefell and his long-time partner, John Arthur, were open in their professional and social lives. But they weren't actively involved in the gay rights movement.

"Our brand of activism was where do I sign the check," Obergefell said.

A former German teacher turned real estate agent, he found acceptance among family, friends and co-workers after coming out in 1992. But Cincinnati, the Ohio city where he lived, also had an intolerant side at the time.

Jim Obergefell LGBT Activist in den USA
Obergefell sued for his right marryImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Tom Uhlman

In 1993, voters approved an amendment that stripped gay and lesbian residents of their status under the city's non-discrimination law. The amendment even banned Cincinnati's City Council from passing future legislation that would protect gays and lesbians.

"There's no other way to phrase it - it was just pure hatred for the gay community," Obergefell said.

Cincinnati has come a long way since those days. Voters repealed the amendment in 2004, and City Council passed new legislation in 2006 shielding the LGBT community from discrimination in housing and employment.

The city also supported Obergefell in his battle for marriage equality, which took the 49-year-old all the way to the nation's highest court in Washington, D.C.

The Supreme Court on Friday ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutionally protected right to marry in all 50 states.

"It's amazing to me that our decision to stand up and say we're tired of being second class citizens has the potential to impact our entire country - millions of people," Obergefell said.

Ailing John's death certificate

Obergefell and Arthur were married in a medical jet on the tarmac of Baltimore airport in Maryland, a state which had legalized same-sex marriage through a voter referendum in 2013.

Arthur had contracted ALS, a neurological disease in which the muscles waste away, and could hardly travel due to his deteriorating physical condition.

Family and friends helped pay the $13,000 for the medical plane. The couple chose Maryland because, unlike many other states, Jim could pick up the marriage license by himself, sparing Arthur unnecessary physical burdens.

Though they were thrilled to be married after 20 years of commitment, reality set in when the newlyweds returned to Ohio. Not only had the Midwestern state outlawed gay marriage, it also refused to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

After speaking with a civil rights attorney, they realized that when Arthur succumbed to his condition, he would be listed as unmarried on his death certificate.

"It broke our hearts and it made us mad," Obergefell said. "We shouldn't be told that, no other couple like us should be told that. It isn't right, it isn't just."

Baby Ruby's birth certificate

Like Obergefell, Kelly Noe and Kelly McCracken were not active in the gay rights movement.

Noe always wanted a family; McCracken never dreamed of it. The two met at a club in Cincinnati where McCracken's band was playing. In 2011, they married in Massachusetts, another state that legalized gay marriage.

USA Homo-Ehe McCracken Kelly Noe
It took the impending birth of their daughter for Noe, right, and McCracken to become involved in the gay rights movementImage: DW/S. Kimball

They knew Ohio wouldn't recognize their Massachusetts marriage license. But marriage inequality didn't stir them to take action. At the time, they were simply happy to have each other.

Everything changed when they decided to have a baby. While Noe was pregnant with their daughter, Ruby, the reality set in that McCracken's name would not be on the birth certificate.

"In Ohio, Ruby is hers," McCracken said. "I might as well just be the next door neighbor if something were to happen, if I take her to the hospital."

Battle in the courts

So they all sued the state of Ohio.

Eleven days after marrying Arthur in Maryland, Obergefell was in a federal court in Cincinnati. Noe and McCracken, pregnant with Ruby, also made their case. The judge forced Ohio to properly complete birth and death certificates for same-sex families.

Arthur passed away on October 22, 2013. His death certificate listed him as married to Obergefell. Ruby was born on June 7, 2014. McCracken was listed as a parent on the birth certificate.

But Ohio appealed the federal court's ruling, sending the case Obergefell v. Hodges all the way to the Supreme Court.

Unterstützer der gleichgeschlechtlichen Ehe feiern Entscheidung des Supreme Court
People across the United States celebrated the Supreme Court's ruling on FridayImage: Reuters/Jim Bourg

Religious exemptions

Though same-sex marriage is now legal in every corner of the country, the political battle over LGBT rights continues in other areas of American life.

Ohio's neighbor, Indiana, passed a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act five months after gay marriage was legalized by court order in the state.

The legislation provides recourse to a court where citizen can claim religious exemptions from laws or policies that violate their beliefs. Similar provisions have existed at the federal level and in other states for more than 20 years.

The original purpose was to protect freedom of religion - particularly for minority faith communities, according to Daniel Conkle, a law professor at Indiana University.

But critics have expressed concern that these laws will be used by socially conservative business owners to refuse services to same-sex weddings.

Lack of non-discrimination laws

Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act created such a public backlash that the legislature subsequently added an amendment, which explicitly states that the law cannot be used to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

But the state still doesn't have a comprehensive non-discrimination law that protects LGBT when it comes to housing, employment or public accommodations. In fact, less than half of the 50 US states have laws explicitly protecting LGBT people from discrimination.

"You're going to have couples getting married at 10 a.m., put wedding photos on Facebook and their employer is going to see them and fire them at noon because there's no non-discrimination law that says they can't be fired," said Adam Talbot, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign. "And then their landlord is going to evict them at 2 p.m. because there's no law that says you can't be evicted based on sexual orientation or gender identity."

The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights organization in the United States, has called for federal legislation to provide nationwide protection for LGBT people. For Obergefell, there's still a long fight ahead.

"We're still not full Americans," Obergefell said. "We're not equal."