CINCINNATI — John Arthur, who with his longtime partner helped lead a legal challenge to Ohio’s ban on gay marriage, died early Tuesday, his attorney and a funeral home director said. He was 48.
With Arthur terminally ill from Lou Gehrig’s disease, he and James Obergefell, 47, flew to Maryland in June to marry after more than 20 years together. They then then sued in federal court in Cincinnati for recognition of their marriage in Ohio so they could be buried next to each other in Arthur’s family plot, which only allows decedents and spouses.
“Their love is a model for all of us,” attorney Al Gerhardstein said, praising Arthur for fighting in his last days for the rights of all same-sex couples.
“Part of John’s legacy will be the difference he has already made in the struggle for marriage equality,” Gerhardstein said.
Funeral home director Robert Grunn, who recently joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff, said arrangements were pending.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Black found in favor of the couple and a second couple that joined the lawsuit. He wrote that they deserved to be treated with respect and that Ohio law historically has recognized out-of-state marriages as valid as long as they were legal where they took place, citing marriages between cousins and involving minors.
“How then can Ohio, especially given the historical status of Ohio law, single out same-sex marriages as ones it will not recognize?” Black wrote in August. “The short answer is that Ohio cannot.”
The lawsuit has been expanded to have the out-of-state marriages of all gay couples in similar situations recognized on Ohio death certificates, despite the statewide ban. Black is expected to rule on that in December.
Critics of the lawsuit say it’s a backdoor approach to legalizing gay marriage in Ohio and that the cemetery where Obergefell and Arthur want to be buried next to each other likely would accommodate their request without litigation.
But the president of the cemetery where they want to be buried said he has to follow Ohio law.
Gary Freytag, president of Spring Grove Cemetery, said that in order for the couple to be buried next to each other, they either have to be listed on their death certificates as married or get written permission from all the living direct heirs of the family plot.
He pointed out that the problem likely won’t come to a head until Obergefell’s death, since Arthur’s family is the one who has a plot at Spring Grove.
“At that point, Ohio law may allow single-sex marriage,” he said.
The case has drawn attention in other states, including helping spark a similar but much broader lawsuit in Pennsylvania. Black’s decision also has irritated some conservative groups and lawmakers in Ohio, with one Republican state legislator calling for Congress to impeach him.