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From Ohio to the Supreme Court: plaintiffs and law experts discuss same-sex marriage

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The movement for marriage equality has accomplished some notable victories over the past few years, but supporters believes there is still a long way to go, as the plaintiffs in a same-sex marriage case going to the Supreme Court said in a panel discussion on Tuesday at the Athena Cinema.

The panel focused on Obergefell v. Hodges, a case that began in Ohio and has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Along the way, it melded with a similar lawsuit concerning birth certificates, also from Ohio, and became linked to other cases from Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The man whose name headlines the case, Jim Obergefell, was part of the panel. Also part of the discussion were two other plaintiffs, Kelly Noe and Kelly McCracken, OU LGBT Center director delfin bautista, and lawyer Hannah Botkin-Doty. The panel was moderated by pre-law advisor and specialist Larry Hayman of Ohio University’s Center for Law, Justice & Culture.

“This whole thing started because I got pissed off,” Obergefell said during the panel.

Obergefell met John Arthur, his spouse, at the University of Cincinnati in 1992. The two fell in love and lived together for about two decades before finally marrying in the summer of 2013 after friends and family helped the couple raise over $13,000 so that the pair could fly to Maryland, where same-sex marriage is legal.

By then, though, Arthur had been diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and only had months to live.

At the time, Ohio refused to recognize the marriage, meaning that when Arthur died, Obergefell’s name would not be listed on the death certificate as the surviving spouse.

“They wanted to take John’s death certificate and wipe my name off of it,” Obergefell said. “It’s a pretty horrible thing to be told 3 days after you’ve gotten married.”

Kelly Noe and Kelly McKracken, who also live in Ohio, went to New Hampshire to marry. A few years later, the two decided to have a child and Noe gave birth to a daughter, Ruby, last spring through artificial insemination. But because Ohio did not recognize the marriage, McKracken was not listed as a parent on Ruby’s birth certificate.

“We wanted both names on the certificate,” McKracken said. “In terms of rights, I’m like a stranger. I can’t take [Ruby] to the emergency room if I couldn’t get a hold of Kelly.”

“My main fear is that Ruby will grow up and feel a little bit of this discrimination,” Noe added as she held her daughter in her arms. “It breaks my heart.”

The three plaintiffs all described their reactions as a mixture of shock and outrage when the Sixth Circuit ruled 2-to-1 that Ohio’s ban on same-sex marriage was constitutional. But all were elated when they were told that the Supreme Court had chosen to hear their case.

“I feel like D.C. is going to be our big bonding trip together,” McKracken said of the journey the plaintiffs will make to the nation’s capital later this month. “We’ll really get to make some memories then.”

The panel all took time to reflect back on how far the movement had come over the past few decades, including delfin bautista.

“Ten years ago, I was a Catholic fundamentalist who was opposed to same-sex marriage,” bautista said. “Now it’s my focus.”

As the panelists acknowledged, their fight is far from over. During the discussion, news broke that Arkansas had passed it’s own “religious freedom” law. Like Indiana, the law allows businesses to refuse service to customers based on their religious beliefs. Indiana’s law has come under scrutiny for allowing businesses to not serve people who identify as a member of the LGBT community.

“I think of it as a war, and it won’t be over for a long time,” said Hannah Botkin-Doty, a Columbus-based lawyer. Botkin-Doty lives with her wife, Kristen, and her law office specializes in adoption law and LGBT law, among other topics.

“There’s always going to be discrimination, and that’s okay,” McKracken said. “It keeps the activists going strong.”

When asked how students can help, panel members said one way is to be conscious of the issues that LGBT people go through every day.

“People don’t think about the hospital visits, or taking a child to the emergency room, or any of those things,” bautista said. “Just stepping back and recognizing that there are questions that a lot of you don’t have to answer.”

Before the lawsuit, Obergefell said he had never participated in activism or rallies, save one occasion in 1993 when Cincinnati voted on an amendment that would ban any protections for LGBT people. He held a sign outside a polling place. The amendment passed.

“In the past few years, I have come into my own as an activist,” Obergefell said.

The panelists were in agreement with the statement that being yourself is the best way to promote equality.

“Being yourself and standing up for yourself can be a really positive thing,” McKracken said.

And all were steadfast in their commitment to further the cause, regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“Liberty and justice for all,” Botkin-Doty said. “And until that gets done, we’re all fighting.”

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