The Supreme Court gets its first chance this week to respond to religious-liberty advocates who say the high court's landmark ruling in favor of same-sex marriage threatens the rights of some conservative Christians.
Lawyers for a Kentucky county clerk who opposes same-sex marriage on religious grounds are asking the justices to grant her a temporary shield from lawsuits and court orders that could result in her losing her job or paying damages.
Kim Davis, an elected county clerk in eastern Kentucky, has refused to issue any marriage licenses since the high court ruled June 26 that same-sex couples had an equal right to marry. Kentucky's governor ordered the state's 130 county clerks to comply with the court's decision, but Davis refused.
She said that issuing a license to a gay couple would violate her religious beliefs because she would be endorsing their marriage. And she argued these couples can easily obtain a marriage license by driving less than an hour to one of the neighboring counties.
But she has been sued by several same-sex couples who have been turned away when they sought a marriage license in Rowan County. A federal judge and the U.S. 6th Circuit Court in Cincinnati rejected appeals from Davis and ruled that she has no choice as a government official but to abide by the rulings.
Under Kentucky law, it difficult to remove Davis from her elected post and her duty to issue marriage licenses cannot be turned over to another employee.
She is represented by lawyers for Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based group. "If Davis' religious objection cannot be accommodated, then elected officials have no real religious freedom when they [hold] public office," Mat Staver, the group's founder, said last week.
They sent an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court saying this "first-in-the-nation case" poses the "inevitable conflict between same-sex marriage rights" and the rights to religious freedom. "Certainly, religious liberty objections, including the 1st Amendment and the state religious freedom act, are designed to protect a person from choosing between one's lifelong career in a county clerk's office and one's conscience, or between punitive damages and one's religious liberty," they said in 40-page appeal filed on Friday evening. They also cited comments on religious liberty from the four conservative justices who dissented from the June 26 ruling in favor of same-sex marriages.
In rejecting Davis' earlier claims, U.S. District Judge David Bunning set Monday as a deadline for her to comply. Last week, the 6th Circuit refused to waive that deadline.
Her emergency appeal was lodged with Justice Elena Kagan, who handles such claims from the 6th Circuit. She could turn it down, or ask for a response from lawyers from the same-sex couples who sued Davis. She could also refer the matter to the full court.
On Twitter: @DavidGSavage