Kentucky's governor has made a series of executive orders in an effort to reshape state government along conservative ideological lines, including one that removes county clerks' names from marriage licenses, granting the request of Kim Davis, who drew national attention for refusing to grant licenses to same-sex couples.
New Republican Gov. Matt Bevin cited the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act as he removed the names of counties and county clerks, and allowed clerks to designate a third party to sign them.
Davis, the county clerk of Rowan County, had asked former Gov. Steve Beshear for such a change last summer while she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Davis said her Christian beliefs made it impossible for her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in June, leading to several lawsuits against her and five days in jail for contempt of court.
The existing marriage license "creates a substantial burden on the freedom of religion of some county clerks and employees of their offices because the current form bears the name of the issuing county clerk, and some county clerks and their employees sincerely believe that the presence of their name on the form implies their personal endorsement of, and participation in, same-sex marriage, which conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs," Bevin wrote in his executive order.
The new license, which Bevin ordered the state Department for Libraries and Archives to create, lists at the top of the form only the Commonwealth of Kentucky, not the county or the county clerk. There is a line at the bottom where an "issuing official" may sign, but one of Davis' lawyers Tuesday said that could be — as Davis has arranged it in Rowan County — a willing deputy clerk who signs only as a notary public.
"It's a great Christmas present for Kim Davis and for others like her," attorney Mat Staver said.
The lawsuits involving Davis, the state and several same-sex couples from Rowan County, pending in federal district and appeals courts, now might be moot, Staver said.
Bevin's order essentially ratifies the licensing system Davis has improvised since her release from jail last summer, he said.
Critics, however, said state law establishes the contents of Kentucky marriage licenses, including an authorization statement and a signature by the county clerk, and a governor cannot change state law through an executive order.
If the General Assembly wants to rewrite the law when it meets this winter, it can, but the language on marriage licenses otherwise cannot be altered, they said.
"I don't see how the governor, on his own, can eliminate the clerks' names from these forms," Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins said. "I would imagine a lawsuit will be filed."
Among his other executive orders, Bevin suspended an executive order that automatically restored the right to vote to most nonviolent felons who have served out their sentences — a pool that potentially included thousands.