When gay and lesbian couples return to the Rowan County clerk’s office Friday, deputies are expected to finally grant the requests for marriage licenses even though their boss remained in a Kentucky jail after she refused to issue the documents because of her religious objections.
After a topsy-turvy day in federal court, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis was a defiant resident in jail in Ashland, Ky., where supporters said she was a prisoner because of her religious conscience. It was not clear when or how she would be released.
“We’re not sure what will be the next step,” said Charla Bansley, a spokeswoman for the Liberty Counsel, lawyers for Davis. “We weren’t prepared for this. All she has been asking for all along is an accommodation for her religious beliefs.”
Activists who have been fighting to get the licenses said they will return to the clerk’s office Friday with the expectation of success.
“We are so pleased our clients will get their marriage licenses, but we certainly take no joy that Ms. Davis will be jail,” said Heather Weaver of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the four couples — two of them gay and two of them heterosexual — during the weeks of litigation that went up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The judge did what he felt he had to do to protect the court’s authority,” she said. “This makes clear that public officials don’t have the right to not follow the law.”
Davis stopped issuing licenses to all couples, gay and straight, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 26 that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right. Despite repeated rulings against her, she has continued to cite “God’s authority” for defying the courts.
Four couples sued and Davis lost on all judicial levels including the U.S. Supreme Court this week, but she still refused to issue the licenses. The couples sought a contempt order to force her to comply and that was the issue at stake Thursday.
Hundreds of people crowded the courtroom or demonstrated outside, where picketers were seen in television images condemning gays and the court’s approval of same-sex marriage. They carried signs praising Davis for holding firm to her beliefs.
Inside, U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning found Davis in contempt and sent her to jail. At an afternoon hearing, five of her six deputies agreed to grant licenses. The lone holdout was Davis’ son, Nathan, who refused, citing religious feelings. Davis, a Democrat, was elected to replace her mother, who served as clerk for decades.
The current conflict between religion and civil authority seemed to be finally resolved and Kim Davis was returned from jail. But she rejected the compromise worked out by her lawyers who wanted her freed if she agreed not to interfere when the deputy clerks acted on the licenses.
Davis told the court that she didn’t want her name, which is printed on the documents, used and refused to authorize her deputies to grant marriage licenses. She was promptly returned to jail.
Throughout, Davis has maintained that her Christian beliefs gave her no choice but to oppose the licenses. After a life that included personal problems and four marriages, Davis said she became a devout Christian four years ago after the death of her mother-in-law.
“To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience,” Davis said this week in a statement. “It is not a light issue for me. It is a heaven or hell decision.”
In jailing Davis, Bunning acted more forcefully than both sides had thought. Lawyers for the couples seeking the contempt charge had asked for a fine rather than imprisonment.
But Bunning was adamant in protecting judicial power.
“The court cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order,” Bunning said, according to media reports from the courtroom. “If you give people the opportunity to choose which orders they follow, that’s what potentially causes problems.”
“Everyone is stunned at this development,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. “Kim Davis is being treated as a criminal because she cannot violate her conscience. While she may be behind bars for now, Kim Davis is a free woman. Her conscience remains unshackled.”
As an elected official, Davis cannot be fired and has refused to resign despite calls for her impeachment. She and her backers also urged the state Legislature to change Kentucky laws to find some way for her to keep her job while following her conscience.
The Legislature is not currently in session and a special session doesn’t seem likely.
“I went to church to fulfill her dying wish,” Davis said of her mother-in-law in a statement released through Liberty Counsel, which defends Christians in cases in which religion clashes with civil society. In church, “I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven.”