CINCINNATI — A lawsuit seeking to have the out-of-state marriages of two gay Ohio couples recognized on death certificates has been expanded to include all similarly situated couples, despite a statewide ban on gay marriage.
Attorneys are now asking federal Judge Timothy Black to require Ohio’s health department director to order funeral directors and coroners to list gay clients as married if they were legally wed in another state.
Black approved a request to expand the lawsuit today and is expected to issue a ruling in December.
A spokesman for Ohio Department of Health Director Theodore Wymyslo said departmental policy is to not comment on pending litigation.
John Arthur and James Obergefell, both 47, are the couple who began the lawsuit. Arthur, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Obergefell sued in July to ensure that they can be buried next to each other in Arthur’s family plot, which is in a cemetery that only allows descendants and spouses.
A second couple, William Herbert Ives and David Michener, joined the lawsuit earlier this month after Ives died unexpectedly and Michener wanted him to be listed as married before he was cremated.
Black found in favor of both couples, saying 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. “The short answer is that Ohio cannot.”
His ruling has sparked backlash from opponents of gay marriage, including state Rep. John Becker, a Union Township Republican who last week called for Black’s impeachment.
“The grounds are malfeasance and abuse of power,” Becker wrote in a letter to U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup in which he asked the congressman to begin impeachment proceedings. “Judge Black has demonstrated his incompetence by allowing his personal political bias to supersede jurisprudence.”
A woman who answered the phone at Black’s office said the judge was prohibited from commenting.
Only eight federal judges in history have been removed by Congress, most recently Judge G. Thomas Porteous of Louisiana in 2010 after he was accused of accepting cash and other favors from attorneys and bail bondsmen with business before his court.
Phil Burress, president of the Ohio-based anti-gay marriage group Citizens for Community Values, said the effort to get gay couples recognized on death certificates is just a roundabout way to get gay marriage declared legal in Ohio.
“Basically they’re trying to come through the back door,” he said. “Until they change it they have to obey the law. Marriage in the state of Ohio is between one man and one woman.”
Robert Grunn, a Cincinnati funeral director who is joining the lawsuit, said he wants to do what’s right.
“It’s making people more equal,” he said. “A time of death is very painful and you don’t want to have to exclude your loved ones on a certificate that’s meaningful to your family history.”