Same-sex marriage plaintiff Obergefell: Push for religious freedom laws is offensive
James Obergefell (R) with journalist Chris Geidner (

Man at center of supreme court case says such measures suggest ‘that those of us who believe in equality have no conscience’

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Jim Obergefell made history on 26 June, when the supreme court ruled on his case and in a 5-4 vote legalized same-sex marriage across the US. But not all in the nation have celebrated the expansion of marriage equality. Social conservatives have spent the last week emphasizing the need to protect religious freedom .

Obergefell became a plaintiff in the supreme court case that made history when his marriage to John Arthur, which took place in Maryland, was not recognised by his home state of Ohio after Arthur died. He said he found objections to same-sex marriage under the banner of religious freedom “offensive”.

Many opponents of same-sex marriage have touted religious freedom laws, which allow individuals to opt out of providing certain services if those services contradict their religious beliefs, as a way to allow clerks and others to decline to issue licenses for same-sex marriage.

A number of Republican presidential candidates have discussed such laws as a way to respond to the court’s ruling.

“They are pandering to their base and they are trying to create problems where there aren’t problems,” Obergefell told the Guardian this week.

“Religious freedom is still guaranteed by the constitution. There is nothing about marriage equality that forces any single religious person to perform a marriage that they are against, based on their belief.

“To continue saying that we need freedom of religion and freedom of conscience laws, that’s offensive. That’s saying that those of us who believe in equality have no conscience and that’s incredibly offensive.”

Obergefell said no one group of people could lay exclusive claim to conscience.

“They are not the only people who are right and moral and just,” he said. “It’s offensive and they are just trying to whip up their base and get support and make money.”

Among those pondering the issue of religious freedom laws is the Republican frontrunner for 2016, the former Florida governor Jeb Bush. In a statement, Bush said he believed the issue of same-sex marriage should have been left up to the individual states.

To continue saying that we need freedom of religion and freedom of conscience laws, that’s offensive

Jim Obergefell

“I also believe that we should love our neighbor and respect others, including those making lifetime commitments,” he said . “In a country as diverse as ours, good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side.

“It is now crucial that as a country we protect religious freedom and the right of conscience and also not discriminate.”

Others have been less measured in their responses. A pressure group, the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, issued a statement that said 26 June “may very well go down in history as one of the darkest days in American jurisprudence”. Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee accused the court of “implementing judicial tyranny”.

In Texas, attorney general Ken Paxton said clerks retained religious freedom that would allow “ religious objections to issuing same-sex marriage licenses ”, and thus relieve them of the duty to issue licenses for same-sex marriages.

On Monday, Obergefell was in Austin and then Dallas, speaking against Paxton’s decision at press conferences and community events.

“Public officials – clerks of court, magistrates, etc – they are public employees,” he told the Guardian. “They are there to serve the public and the public means everyone. Their personal beliefs, their religious beliefs are protected by the constitution.

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“That, however, does not give them the ability or the right to say, ‘We will serve this part of the public but not that part of the public.’ They are paid by all citizens of that state and they are to serve all citizens of that state.”

To Obergefell, who received a phone call from President Barack Obama after his victory at the supreme court, the fight for LGBT rights is far from over.

“I discovered something about myself over the past couple of years, and that’s [a] need to be involved in something that’s bigger than I am, something that impacts people, something that makes the world a better place,” he said.

“I’ll be involved in continuing to fight for equality for the LGBT community. Even now with marriage equality – in some states, someone could get married and the next day put their wedding photo on their desk at work; they could be fired. They could lose their job.

“There’s a lot of work left to do. I intend to be involved in that.” © Guardian News and Media 2015