Federal Judge: Ohio Must Recognize Out-Of-State Same-Sex Marriages For Death Certificates


Jim Obergefell and the late John Arthur, a married Ohio couple

Jim Obergefell and the late John Arthur, a married Ohio couple

Jim Obergefell and the late John Arthur, a married Ohio couple

In a narrow ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black ruled that Ohio may not discriminate against same-sex couples who legally marry in another state when processing death certificates. While the Obama appointee confined his ruling to the question of death certificates, he strongly hinted that Ohio must respect out-of-state same-sex marriages in other areas as well.

John Arthur and James Obergefell, partners of 20 years, legally married in Maryland in July. But since Ohio passed a state constitutional amendment in 2004 prohibiting the Buckeye State from recognizing same-sex marriages our civil unions, the state refused to recognize them as married. With Arthur close to death with ALS, the couple sued their state to make sure Obergefell would be accurately listed on Arthur’s death certificate as his surviving spouse. Judge Black granted a temporary restraining order in July ensuring that the couple’s marriage would be included on the death certificate, though Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine (R) objected to this dying wish and continued to defend the discriminatory amendment in federal court. Arthur died in October.

In his final ruling Monday, Black observed that since Ohio recognized out-of-state marriages on death certificates for other marriages that may not be valid in Ohio, the state must do the same for same-sex unions:

That is, once you get married lawfully in one state, another state cannot summarily take your marriage away, because the right to remain married is properly recognized as a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution. U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. Moreover, as this Court held in its initial Orders this summer and reaffirms today, by treating lawful same-sex marriages differently than it treats lawful opposite sex marriages (e.g., marriages of first cousins, marriages of certain minors, and common law marriages), Ohio law, as applied to these Plaintiffs, violates the United States Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection: that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction equal protection of the laws.” U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.

The U.S. Supreme Court established in the Windsor v. United States case in June that the federal government must recognize state same-sex marriages — but it has not yet addressed whether other states must do the same.

In other words, the Due Process and Equal Protection guarantees in the U.S. Constitution clearly trump Ohio’s discriminatory constitutional amendment. But, for now, death certificates are the only area in which Ohio has explicitly been told to respect out-of-state same-sex marriages.

(HT: Kathleen Perrin)