For many Americans, the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage nationwide is political, historic. But for Jim Obergefell, one of the plaintiffs in the Obergefell v. Hodge case, it is intensely personal.
Obergefell’s late husband, John Arthur, died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) just three months after the two men married in July 2013. Together they filed suit to try to force their home state of Ohio, where gay marriage was previously not legal, to recognize their out-of-state union.
Just hours after the ruling, he told PEOPLE that he especially savored hearing joyous demonstrators singing the national anthem on the court plaza: “It was beautiful to hear that on a day when, inside that courtroom, I felt more like an equal American than I had in a very long time.”
Now that his surname is destined for a place in American history books alongside the likes of Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, the soft-spoken man known for his bow ties says he can’t wrap his head around that enormity. President Barack Obama told him he changed America.
“I don’t feel like I belong in that company in some ways; I don’t feel worthy. This was just John and me fighting for our marriage. I know it is so much bigger than that, but when I think of this case, I keep coming back to just the two of us. We were living for the day because the future meant John’s death and we didn’t want to think about that.”
As Obergefell stood on the steps of the Supreme Court on Friday, he felt the full impact of his efforts when he received a phone call from President Obama.
“I just want to say congratulations,” the president told Obergefell, per the National Journal. “Your leadership on this, you know, has changed the country. Not only have you been a great example for people, but you’re also going to bring about a lasting change in this country. And it’s pretty rare when that happens. I couldn’t be prouder of you and your husband.”
“It’s really been an honor for me to be involved in this fight and to have been able to fight for my marriage and live up to my commitments to my husband,” Obergefell responded. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for the LGBT community, and it’s really an honor to have become part of that fight.”
Before today’s decision, Obergefell, 48, had been lining up outside the Supreme Court nearly every day to ensure he would be there, front and center, when the court ruled on whether gay couples had the constitutional right to wed.
“I look at it as another commitment that I made to John,” he recently told PEOPLE. “We started this fight for each other and I’ve completed it for him and for our marriage.”
The lawyers, law students and activists who lined up outside the court alongside Obergefell may have noticed him holding only what was allowed inside the courtroom: a notebook and pen to take notes. But the grieving widower also carried something much dearer to his heart: his beloved husband’s ashes.
After Arthur’s death, a jeweler friend fused together the couple’s wedding bands for Obergefell, carving out a channel that now holds some of his late husband’s ashes.
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“So John was with me today in my heart and in my thoughts and he was physically with me,” Obergefell told PEOPLE after the Supreme Court heard arguments in the gay-marriage case in April. “It was a comfort to play with my ring in the courtroom and think about John.”
Celebrating with champagne was a tradition for Obergefell and Arthur, who first met in the fall of 1992 and fell in love by the time the bubbly was uncorked on New Year’s Eve.
They popped another bottle together after they married in Maryland in July 2013. And when the Supreme Court heard arguments in his case on April 28, 2015, Obergefell, along with his niece and two friends, broke out the champagne again.
“We will be raising glasses of champagne in memory of John. We’ll toast him,” Obergefell told PEOPLE at the time. “His approach to life was always, ‘I’m alive and breathing, so let’s have champagne!’ ”
In an open letter Friday, Obergefell laments the fact that his husband isn’t here to celebrate the milestone ruling with him, but he rejoices in America’s “step toward the promise of equality enshrined in our Constitution.”
“John and I started our fight for a simple reason,” he explains in the letter. “We wanted the State of Ohio to recognize our lawful Maryland marriage on John’s impending death certificate … We wanted to live up to the promises we made to love, honor, and protect each other as a committed and lawfully married couple.”
“Couples across America may now wed and have their marriage recognized and respected no matter what state they call home,” he continues. “No other person will learn at the most painful moment of married life, the death of a spouse, that their lawful marriage will be disregarded by the state. No married couple who moves will suddenly become two single persons because their new state ignores their lawful marriage.”
“I can finally relax knowing that Ohio can never erase our marriage from John’s death certificate, and my husband can now truly rest in peace.”
• With reporting by SANDRA SOBIERAJ WESTFALL