A gay couple emerged from a county clerk’s office in Morehead, Kentucky, with a marriage license in hand early on Sept. 4, embracing and crying, as the defiant clerk who runs the office remained jailed for repeatedly refusing to allow the licenses to be issued.
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has insisted that forcing her to affirm same-sex marriage violates her religious convictions as a born-again, fundamentalist Christian. To date, she’s lost her fight at every level of federal court, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
After being denied a marriage license four times prior, William Smith Jr. and James Yates, a couple for nearly a decade, were the first to receive one in Rowan County. Deputy clerk Brian Mason issued the license, congratulating the couple and shaking their hands as he smiled.
“This means at least for this area that civil rights are civil rights and they are not subject to belief,” Yates said.
A crowd of supporters cheered outside as the couple left, while a street preacher rained down words of condemnation. Yates and Smith said they are trying to choose between two wedding dates and plan a small ceremony at the home of Yates’ parents.
The licenses were issued after five of Davis’ deputy clerks agreed to provide them. The lone holdout in the office was Davis’ son, Nathan Davis. And Kim Davis’ office was dark as the first license was issued.
That’s because Kim Davis, at the time, was in jail for contempt of court.
During a hearing the day before, U.S. District Judge David Bunning ordered Davis to be taken to jail unless she promised not to interfere with her employees issuing licenses. She refused, citing her Christian beliefs.
Speaking to reporters, Davis’ fourth husband, Joe Davis, held a sign saying, “Welcome to Sodom and Gomorrah.” He said his wife was in good spirits after her first night in jail.
Kim Davis would spend four more nights in jail before Bunning released her on Sept. 8.
During that time, Davis, through her legal representation at the ultra-right-wing Liberty Counsel, sought legislative relief from abiding by federal law and the federal order. But Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear refused to call a special session of the Legislature, which will not convene until January 2016.
‘A good person’
Davis, an Apostolic Christian, wept during her testimony in court on Sept. 3, telling the judge she was “always a good person” and that she gave her heart to the Lord in 2011 and “promised to love Him with all my heart, mind and soul because I wanted to make heaven my home.”
“God’s moral law conflicts with my job duties,” Davis told the judge before she was taken away by a U.S. marshal. “You can’t be separated from something that’s in your heart and in your soul.”
But prior to finding Jesus and imposing what she believes to be his teachings on others, Davis led a life that critics have derided as ungodly. Internet commenters have lambasted Davis as a hypocrite for her multiple marriages and adulterous affairs. Her marital history reads like a soap opera plot: She became pregnant with twins by her third husband while married to her first husband. She then convinced her second husband to adopt them, before leaving him and marrying the twins’ father — only to leave him, too, for her fourth husband.
Davis is trying to raise money to cover her legal bills with the anti-gay Liberty Counsel. Gofundme.com refused to post an appeal on her behalf, citing its policy of not providing a platform for people who have broken the law.
The notorious anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church has joined the chorus of voices speaking out against Davis. Westboro members tweeted that Davis is going to hell along with the gay couples she refused to marry.
But around the country, other evangelical supporters reached for Biblical heroes, comparing Davis to Silas and Daniel, imprisoned for their faith and rescued by God.
It’s precisely the narrative gay rights advocates had hoped to avoid. But as Davis’ mug shot rocketed around the Internet, it became clear that the gay rights movement must battle the argument that Christianity is under siege, said Kenneth Upton, senior counsel for Lambda Legal, a civil liberties group focused on LGBT rights.
“This is what the other side wants,” Upton said, pointing to the image of Davis in handcuffs. “This is a Biblical story, to go to jail for your faith. We don’t want to make her a martyr to the people who are like her, who want to paint themselves as victims.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing couples Kim Davis turned away, had asked that she be fined rather than imprisoned, in part to avoid “a false persecution story,” said attorney Dan Canon.
But Bunning ordered her to jail anyway, reasoning that she would be unmoved by monetary penalties.
“I think he was trying to make an example of Kim Davis and he may well do so,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which has been designated an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Courage breeds courage, especially when it comes from unlikely places. She may be the example that sparks a firestorm of resistance across this country.”
Chris Hartman, director of Louisville’s Fairness Campaign, dismissed the small number of holdout clerks as a “blip on the radar of civil rights.”
Since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide in June, only about 17 clerks and judges, many of them advised by the Liberty Counsel, have refused to comply. They stopped issuing marriage licenses to any couple, gay or straight. Davis was the first to be challenged in court.
Rosa Parks or George Wallace?
Yet Davis is suddenly famous around the globe as the face of Christian resistance to gay marriage.
After meeting with Davis in jail, Liberty Counsel attorney Mat Staver said “she is a prisoner of her conscience.” He quoted the letter Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from his Birmingham jail cell in 1963, rallying civil rights activists to challenge unjust laws and pay the consequences if necessary to force peaceful change.
He described Davis as the first American imprisoned for a religious objection to gay marriage.
The lawyers suing her dismissed that notion. “This is the billionth time a person has been jailed for violating a court order,” Canon said.
Historically, backlash has proven inevitable in the face of sweeping social change. When the Supreme Court ordered the integration of public schools in the 1960s, many local officials refused to comply with the ruling. The National Guard had to be sent to Southern cities and towns to escort African-American students into what were previously all-white schools. Racists cited biblical passages to justify their actions.
“It’s ironic when you think about it, when the basis of being oppressed is that people won’t let you discriminate anymore,” said Lambda Legal’s Upton. “It’s like an Alice in Wonderland world.”
Columbia Law School professor Katherine Franke, who has studied the intersection of public service and personal faith, said Davis has “elected to make herself a martyr.
And some in the crowded field of Republican presidential candidates are backing her. Candidate Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, visited Kentucky to meet with Davis and join demonstrators at a rally the day she was released from jail. Huckabee said, “We must end the criminalization of Christianity.”
Meanwhile, GOP candidates Carly Fiorina and Lindsey Graham said Davis should follow the law or resign.
And even some conservative veterans of “religious freedom” fights worried that Davis makes a bad case for martyrdom.
Her insistence on keeping her elected position while ignoring federal court orders was sharply criticized in the National Review and The American Conservative, and Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker, who serve on the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote that “religious liberty itself will be imperiled” if people “cannot differentiate between the freedom to exercise one’s religion and the responsibility of agents of the state to carry out the law.”
Still, Perkins and others on the religious right promised that dozens of Kim Davises are ready to go to jail in defense of their religious freedoms.
Returning to office
Davis walked out of the Carter County Detention Center’s front door on Sept. 8, arm-in-arm with Staver and Huckabee as thousands of supporters cheered and waved white crosses backed by a 150-voice church choir. Some in the crowd sang “Amazing Grace” and “God Bless America.”
Bunning lifted the contempt ruling saying he was satisfied that her deputies were fulfilling their obligation to grant licenses to same-sex couples in her absence. But Bunning’s order was clear: If Davis interferes with the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples upon her return, she could go right back to jail.
As WiG went to press on Sept. 9, it was unclear whether Davis would follow Bunning’s order or continue to ignore the court and the law, as she repeatedly did before her jailing.
“I just want to give God the glory. His people have rallied, and you are a strong people,” Davis said after her release, her arms raised and with “Eye of the Tiger” playing.
Staver told the press that Davis “will not violate her conscience” and that she will not resign from her elected job, which pays $80,000 a year and which she inherited from her mother.
Staver also said the marriage licenses issued while Davis was jailed were not valid because they were not given under the authority of the county clerk, a claim the Kentucky attorney general’s office disputes.
‘Oaths mean things’
In jailing Kim Davis, a judge noted the Kentucky county clerk had sworn an oath to perform her job.
Here is the oath of office taken by Davis: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth, and be faithful and true to the Commonwealth of Kentucky so long as I continue a citizen thereof, and that I will faithfully execute, to the best of my ability, the office of … according to law; and I do further solemnly swear … that since the adoption of the present Constitution, I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.”