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Jailed clerk becomes unlikely conservative hero as deputies issue same-sex marriage licenses

James Yates, William Smith Jr., Brian Mason

Deputy Rowan County Clerk Brian Mason, left, hands James Yates and William Smith Jr. their marriage license at the Rowan County Judicial Center in Morehead, Ky., on Sept. 4. 

(Timothy D. Easley / Associated Press)

Rowan County clerk Kim Davis admits she has had a less than perfect life, having worked through personal problems and four marriages in a small rural county in Kentucky. But there is one thing the 49-year-old says she does not doubt: She knows the difference between heaven and hell, and how to get there.

Davis was in a Kentucky jail on Friday after citing “God’s authority” for her refusal to follow court orders and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. With their boss locked up for contempt, her deputy clerks resumed issuing marriage licenses on Friday, including to three same-sex couples.

Outside the clerk’s office, a crowd gathered. Some shouted “Love won!” while others held up signs citing the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as Davis became the latest symbol of the fight between religious and civil authority. Her supporters see her as a prisoner of religious conscience; her detractors maintain she is paying the price for being a public official who was derelict in her duties.

It was not clear how long she would remain jailed; her attorneys said they would appeal the contempt finding. Standing firm in her defiance, Davis believes the marriage licenses issued without her authority Friday are void and she is prepared to stay in jail to uphold her religious beliefs, her attorneys told reporters.

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Davis had stopped issuing all marriage licenses after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. The lifelong resident of conservative Rowan County sees gay marriage as a “heaven or hell decision,” and said she had no choice but to oppose the licenses. After Davis was sued by four couples — two gay and two straight — District Court Judge David Bunning ruled that she must issue the licenses. She unsuccessfully fought that case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Thursday in Ashland, Ky., Bunning ordered her to jail, saying, “The court cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order.” Lawyers for the couples seeking the contempt charge had asked for a fine rather than imprisonment.

Some Republican presidential candidates — who view the case as part of a continuing fight to protect what they consider Christian values from a rapidly changing society — have rushed to defend Davis, who, ironically, won election as a Democrat. But Davis is also an evangelical Christian, a key group in February’s Iowa caucuses and in primaries throughout the South.

The most aggressive Davis supporter has been Republican Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister before his political career, which includes being governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007. He said Friday that he would visit Davis in jail next week, and has set up a petition on his campaign website calling for her release.

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“Having Kim Davis in federal custody removes all doubt of the criminalization of Christianity in our country,” he said in a statement. “We must defend religious liberty and never surrender to judicial tyranny.”

GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas also strongly defended Davis. “Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith,” his statement said.

Other Republican presidential candidates who have defended Davis to varying degrees include Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Asked about Davis’ imprisonment Friday morning, Donald Trump, who leads in most polls for the GOP presidential nomination, noted that the Supreme Court had legalized same-sex marriage.

“You have to go with it,” Trump said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “The decision has been made, and that is the law of the land.”

“I hate to see her being put in jail,” he said, later adding, “We’re a nation of laws.”

Republican candidates Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Carly Fiorina offered similar responses.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he had not discussed the judge’s decision with President Obama, but he added that it was not up to Davis to defy the Supreme Court.

“Every public official in our democracy is subject to the rule of law,” Earnest said. “No one is above the law. That applies to the president of the United States and that applies to the county clerk of Rowan County, Ky., as well.”

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William Smith Jr. and James Yates were the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Rowan County on Friday. “This means at least for this area that civil rights are civil rights and they are not subject to belief,” said Yates, who later told reporters he just wanted the license. “I don’t want her in jail,” he said of Davis.

In some ways, Davis is an unlikely candidate for her current role. She has acknowledged making mistakes in her life.

Davis married her first husband when she was 18 and divorced in 1994, according to the Associated Press. She also acknowledged having two children out of wedlock. In all, she has been married four times, twice to the same man — current husband Joe Davis, who describes himself as a red-neck hillbilly.

Davis says that more than four years ago, on a Sunday afternoon, she embraced Christianity during a church service. “There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ.”

Davis has worked in government for more than 25 years, first as a deputy clerk for Jean Bailey, her mother and former Rowan County clerk. Then in 2014, Davis was elected to replace her retiring mother.

Known for wearing skirts that come to her ankles, Davis describes herself as an Apostolic Christian. The church says it believes the Bible is the “infallible word of God,” and favors a fundamentalist approach and modest dress and lifestyle.

Her attorneys said Friday that Davis, who has held Bible study for inmates at the Rowan County jail, is wearing an orange jumpsuit and studying the Bible in her cell.

Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.

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