Obergefell, a former ACLU client, was the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s historic marriage equality ruling.
June 2015 was a joyous time for me and LGBT people across the country. The Supreme Court decision extending the freedom to marry to all loving couples was a landmark achievement in the long and ongoing struggle for equality under the law. I was deeply honored to have played a role in helping same-sex couples win this victory.
June 2016, just one month ago, was a time of heartbreak for millions around the world, including myself. The murder of 49 people and wounding of 53 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was a devastating tragedy and the worst attack on the LGBT community in our nation’s history.
This morning, exactly one month after this horrifying event, I appeared before Congress to discuss a bill, the “First Amendment Defense Act,” that would authorize sweeping, taxpayer-funded discrimination against LGBT people. It is deeply hurtful to a still-grieving LGBT community.
This hits particularly close to home for me. My partner and eventual husband of almost 21 years, John Arthur, passed away on October 22, 2013, after a years-long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (known as ALS). I was lucky to be able to be with John, caring for him, at every difficult stage of his illness. FADA, however, would allow for any privately owned business to refuse a gay or lesbian employee like myself the ability to take time off to care for a sick spouse, even though this would violate federal family and medical leave laws.
What could ever justify such a discriminatory and harmful action?
John and I had to go to Maryland to get married because our home state of Ohio did not allow same-sex couples to marry. We were only able to do so aboard a medically equipped plane. John’s condition was so fragile that we couldn’t even leave the plane — we had to be married on the airport tarmac.
When we returned to Ohio, we learned that I would not be listed on John’s death certificate as his surviving spouse when he died, because the state refused to recognize our marriage for any purpose. We decided to fight back in court against this injustice.
Together with partners like the ACLU, we began a legal journey that, sadly, John did not get to see to conclusion. It culminated in a momentous victory for loving and committed couples across the country. I know John would have been proud to have played a role in this historic legal victory for equality.
Even though same-sex couples now have the ability to obtain a civil marriage license in any state in the country, our work to achieve full equality is far from over. It is critically important that our constitutional rights are not undermined by proposals, like FADA, that would subject loving couples, like me and John, and others to discrimination.
Proponents of FADA argue that it is necessary to protect churches, clergy, and others who oppose marriage equality for religious reasons. But the First Amendment is already clear on this point. Since the founding of this country, no church or member of the clergy has been forced to marry any couple if doing so would violate their religious teachings. That has not changed since same-sex couples won the freedom to marry.
Religious liberty is a core American value. Everyone in this country is free to believe (or not believe) and to live out their faith as they see fit, provided that they do not do so in a way that harms other people. As I see it, this legislation turns this value on its head by permitting discrimination and harm under the guise of religious liberty.
Given the way that this legislation is drafted, its harms are not limited to LGBT people or same-sex couples. Indeed, women, particularly single mothers, and unmarried couples could also find themselves on the receiving end of discriminatory treatment if this proposal were ever to be signed into law.
For example, the legislation could allow certain social service programs that receive federal funding, including homeless shelters, to turn away a single mother and her child. In addition, it could permit any non-profit university to continue to receive federal funding even when it fires an unmarried teacher simply for becoming pregnant.
It is difficult for me to imagine why anyone would think such discrimination should be permitted in the year 2016. I believe that the United States Congress must be better than this.
I hope that Congress will move away from elevating proposals like this that only serve to harm a vulnerable community. Congress should stand on the right side of history by steadfastly rejecting this mean-spirited and discriminatory proposal. I hope that we instead look at ways to protect LGBT people and others in America from violence, discrimination, and harm.
Everyone deserves the freedom to live their life without fearing discrimination or worse, simply because of who they are or whom they love.