Guests for Obama speech reflect diverse views

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WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has invited 23 guests to sit with the First Lady during his final State of the Union address Tuesday night, and already the identities of some are making waves.

Among those sitting with the First Lady will be Refaai Hamo, a Syrian refugee, and Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that legalized gay marriage across the nation. 

Hamo, the refugee from Syria, first made headlines when his dreams of making a difference in the world as a scientist were featured on the photoblog Humans of New York. The President, who commented on the Humans of New York post, invited Hamo to join his wife Tuesday night.  During the 2016 presidential primary campaigns, immigration and the global refugee crisis has led to questions of who to allow into the country, whether Muslim or Christian, and the level of security checks needed.  Now living in Troy, Michigan, Hamo has escaped a land where his life was torn apart by a Syrian government missile that destroyed his home and killed his wife and daughter. 

Obergefell, a Cincinnati, Ohio, resident, married his partner of 20 years in Maryland, but the marriage wasn’t recognized in Ohio. Obergefell fought for recognition of his marriage all the way up to the Supreme Court, which held in June that states cannot limit marriage to couples of the opposite sex. 

Also invited by President Obama to attend the speech before both houses of Congress is Ryan Reyes, whose boyfriend was killed in the Dec. 2 terrorist attack in San Bernadino, California. Reyes has spoken out against radicalization while encouraging religious tolerance. After the attack, Reyes told journalists: “I speak for both Daniel and myself when I say that this attack should not encourage people to treat Muslims any differently than they would anyone else. The twisted actions and beliefs of a few should not be used to view the majority.”

Other notable guests, including one particularly controversial religious freedom advocate, were invited by members of Congress.

One attracting attention is Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who defied the U.S. Supreme Court over legalizing same-sex marriage, will be in the chamber, courtesy of Ohio Re. Jim Jordan, according to The news site said Jordan, a Republican, at first said he didn’t know Davis would receive tickets from his office for Davis and her lawyer, Mat Staver, the founder of Liberty Counsel. He said his office had given the ticket to the Family Research Council, a conservative activist organization that opposes same-sex marriage.

The presence of Davis, who briefly went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples last year, “is an insult” to lesbian and gay Americans, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island said on Twitter. “Kim Davis refused to follow law, discriminated against gay couples,” he tweeted.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has invited two nuns from the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic group that runs nursing homes around the country, The Washington Post reported. The Sisters challenged requirements under the Affordable Care Act to provide insurance to cover contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs to employees, saying that doing so would violate their religious beliefs. A lawsuit that has ensued is pending before the Supreme Court.

Several Democratic members of Congress will be accompanied by Muslim guests, The Hill reported Friday. In order to help combat “Islamaphobia,” Muslim-American Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the head of the Democratic National Committee, wrote to their House peers, asking them to bring a Muslim as their guest in order to challenge “hateful rhetoric.”

In the Massachusetts delegation, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Salem), will bring Ahmad Alkhalaf, a nine-year-old Syrian refugee who lost both arms when his camp in Syria was bombed and who now lives with his father in Boston, where the boy is receiving medical treatment.

Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Melrose), invited  Muslim-American Nazda Alam, a Weston resident who leads a Muslim voter registration project in the state.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Worcester)  invited Asima Silva, a Muslim community leader in the state’s second-largest city.

Other members of the Bay State delegation are bringing a variety of guests. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Springfield) will have state Attorney General Maura Healey as his guest, in recognition of her role fighting the opioid drug-abuse crisis. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Cambridge, invited Alexis Ploss, a University of Massachusetts-Lowell student carrying about $50,000 in education loans, to represent the many Americans burdened by student debt. Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Malden, is bringing anti-gun violence activist John Rosenthal.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.