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Plaintiff in landmark same-sex marriage ruling worries about overturning Roe v. Wade


June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A historic day here at the Supreme Court...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Supreme Court has said there is a constitutional right - excuse me - to same-sex marriage. You can hear the cheers in the crowd...

BARACK OBAMA: This ruling will strengthen all of our communities by offering to all loving same-sex couples the dignity of marriage across this great land.

JIM OBERGEFELL: The four words etched onto the front of the Supreme Court, equal justice under law, applied to us, too.

KELLY: Well, fast-forward seven years to a vastly different court and what will be another landmark decision, this time about a federal right to abortion. A leaked draft opinion suggests the court is ready to overturn it, and overturning Roe vs. Wade could have implications for other rights based in that decision, including the right to same-sex marriage.

Watching closely is Jim Obergefell. He is that celebratory voice you just heard. It was his case, Obergefell vs. Hodges, which established a right to same-sex marriage. And he joins me now. Jim Obergefell, welcome.

OBERGEFELL: Thank you, Mary Louise. I'm thrilled to be here.

KELLY: Would you begin just by reminding people briefly the story behind your case?

OBERGEFELL: So on June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in their decision in the United States vs. Windsor. And I proposed to my partner, John, and he was dying of ALS. And we were in our 20th year together as a couple, and we ended up marrying inside a medical jet in Maryland. And we lived in Ohio. And when we learned that John's death certificate would be filled out incorrectly when he died, saying he was single, we decided to sue the state of Ohio and the city of Cincinnati to demand recognition of our lawful out-of-state marriage on John's death certificate on the time he died. And that's the case that took me all the way to the Supreme Court.

KELLY: So that's your background. What went through your head when you read the draft opinion that leaked this spring that suggests the Supreme Court might be about to overturn Roe vs. Wade?

OBERGEFELL: Well, my immediate reaction was what a dark day for people in our nation and their privacy and the right to control their body and to make their decisions, their medical decisions, in the absence of government. But then reading the draft in more detail to see some of the justification, some of the rationale in that decision that Justice Alito is using just honestly scares me for marriage equality. You know, there are things in this leaked decision that concern me about so many things that relate to the LGBTQ+ community, as well as interracial marriage and more.

KELLY: Just explain for people what the link is that you see. The Supreme Court is poised to rule on abortion, which has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. What is it that has you so concerned?

OBERGEFELL: My concern in this leaked decision and why I'm worried about marriage equality is the language in this decision which says the rights that we enjoy as Americans that are not specifically written out word for word in the Constitution. The right to privacy, the right to marry - this leaked decision says, well, if those unenumerated rights will continue as what we consider fundamental rights, then they have to be based in our nation's history and tradition. That's a very dangerous thing because marriage equality is only 7 years old - not even 7 years old. That is not a long history. It's certainly not the tradition of our nation.

KELLY: It sounds like you read this very closely. So you will have seen that Justice Alito anticipated this concern and says specifically, look, we're only talking about abortion. The direct quote is, "we emphasize that our decision concerns the constitutional right to abortion and no other right." Again, that's from the draft opinion that leaked.

OBERGEFELL: I honestly take no comfort in that. I'm not sure I believe that. The decision to deny a woman's right to control her body, OK, that specific decision does not apply to marriage equality, but when that decision includes language that says history and tradition are important for non-enumerated rights and we can only interpret the Constitution as at the time it was written, well, those things clearly can be used against not just marriage equality but all types of equality for the LGBTQ+ community.

KELLY: What is the conversation in the LGBTQ community? You've continued to advocate on these issues as people can gather from what you're saying. Is there widespread fear? Are people mobilizing for - to fight again?

OBERGEFELL: There is definitely widespread fear, but it's also one of those things where I consider my job right now to help educate people, to help them understand why they should be concerned, why they should be afraid and why they shouldn't just think, well, that really isn't going to happen. It could happen. And people need to believe that it could happen. So there's fear, but people are also thinking, well, what can we do? And what we can do is get involved at the state level because we're really going to have to rely on states to confirm, to protect, to affirm some of these rights that are at risk with the Supreme Court.

KELLY: I'm thinking of your husband, who you lost. And I wonder what you would want him to know about this moment, how you would explain it to him.

OBERGEFELL: Oh, Mary Louise, I'm not sure I could explain it to anyone. But I flip this question around and I think, what would John be saying right now? And John would be saying, can't we all just get along? Can't we be decent people? Can't we be decent human beings? How did Jim's and my marriage impact anyone, any other marriage? The answer is it didn't. I think John would be disheartened by what's happening in our nation currently.

KELLY: We have been speaking with Jim Obergefell. He was the plaintiff in the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges that established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Thank you so much.

OBERGEFELL: Thank you, Mary Louise. I appreciate the time today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
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