If there are two people who represent opposite poles in the gay marriage debate, it's Supreme Court plaintiff Jim Obergefell and Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis. And they'll both be in the House chamber for the State of the Union on Tuesday night.
Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case that declared same-sex marriages be recognized in all 50 states, will be seated in a place of prominence as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama. Davis, who made headlines last year for refusing to recognize a gay marriage license after the court's decision, will also be in the gallery.
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The Liberty Counsel announced Tuesday that Davis and her attorney Matthew Staver, the group's president, will be in attendance. Staver said in a statement that they will be there "to stand for religious freedom." The group's spokeswoman, Charla Bansely, wrote in an email that they are not disclosing which lawmakers are hosting them, "because the focus should not be on the congressmen or politics but on why Kim and Mat [are] there." Later in the day, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, acknowledged that his staff provided the ticket.
Asked about their presence, Obergefell said Tuesday that he disagrees with their position, but they have a right to be there.
"To me, it doesn’t seem the right venue to promote divisiveness or to encourage, to support or encourage a public official refusing to serve the entire public, especially when they’ve taken an oath to uphold the laws of their state and the constitution," Obergefell told reporters. "But again, it’s the United States. She has much right to be in that chamber as I do, or as anyone does.”
Obergefell sat with a handful of reporters in Sen. Jeff Merkley's office, explaining that he hopes President Barack Obama highlights recent strides in equal rights for the LGBT community and emphasizes that there is more to be done to eliminate discrimination.
Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, had originally invited Obergefell to be his guest for the address, in part to highlight Merkley's bill, known as the Equality Act, which amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. When he submitted his guest to the White House as part of the security protocol, the administration liked the idea of inviting Obergefell and asked him to sit with Mrs. Obama.
Merkley didn't mind, though, and instead will bring Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. He and Obergefell still met to stress that more needed to be done to achieve equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.
"We have marriage equality," Obergefell said, "but unfortunately, in too many places, including my home state of Ohio, a couple can exercise that constitutional right to marry, and the very same day lose their job and be kicked out of their home, be denied public accommodations."
Merkley said that it's unlikely his bill will see committee action in the Republican-controlled Congress. "But what we’re going to see is a continuing conversation about the need to take action," he added. "We’re not at the end of this journey.”
Obergefell said in 2016 he will continue to push for equal rights for the LGBT community. Mrs. Obama noted in her guest announcement that the soft-spoken real estate broker is a self-described "accidental activist." His case, which stemmed from Ohio refusing to recognize his marriage to his longtime partner, John Arthur, on Arthur's death certificate, was combined with similar cases from four states. Because his case had the lowest number, he was named as the plaintiff.
"I ended up in this position, in this role, not by choice, not by planning." Obergefell said. His real estate aspirations have taken a back seat to his advocacy work, as he embraced his newfound calling.
"I’ve discovered in the course of this two-year fight for my marriage that I love fighting for something bigger and more important than I am," Obergefell said. "And for me, I can’t easily step back and leave the fight and stop speaking up because there are too many important things here that I want to keep fighting for and adding my voice to.”
Obergefell said he has already endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, and he will continue to travel across the country telling his story and fighting for equal rights. On Tuesday, with the possibility that the president could point to him during his speech, Obergefell could once again be thrust into the spotlight.
"I’m honestly trying not to think about that,” he said with a laugh. "This evening, all I can do is sit there and revel in this incredible experience and opportunity to be there."
"And if he refers to me and suddenly cameras are on me, we’ll see," Obergefell added. "I’ll just let it happen as it happens.”
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