A county clerk who refused on religious grounds to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples was found in contempt of court Thursday and taken into federal custody. U.S.
District Judge David L. Bunning had given Rowan County clerk Kim Davis the chance to stay out of jail if she “purged her contempt” by allowing one of her deputies to sign marriage licenses in her place. But through an attorney, Davis told the judge that “she does not grant her authority nor would allow any employee to issue those licenses.” Davis’s decision means the 49-year-old elected public servant will be kept in custody indefinitely as the legal wrangling over her case continues.
It also suggests she is willing to martyr herself for her cause, which is the right of public officials to be guided by their personal religious beliefs. The Kentucky clerk drew headlines for refusing to issue marriage licenses to all couples, gay and straight, after the Supreme Court ruled earlier this summer that same-sex couples have the right to marry. An Apostolic Christian, Davis has said it would violate her faith to put her name on a marriage license for two people of the same sex.
She was sued by several gay couples and was ordered by Bunning to begin issuing the licenses this week. When Davis defied the judge’s order, the couples asked for Davis to be held in contempt and fined. But Bunning decided to jail Davis, saying fines would not be sufficient to compel compliance because Davis’s supporters could raise money on her behalf. “The idea of natural law superceding this court’s authority would be a dangerous precedent indeed,” Bunning said. “Thank you, judge,” Davis replied before being removed from the courtroom.
[The defiant Kim Davis, the Ky. clerk who refuses to issue gay marriage licenses] Davis’s case has grabbed the national spotlight, with her supporters calling her stand an act of courage in the face of government intrusion on free exercise of religion and gay rights supporters describing it as a desperate last gasp in the wake of the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage nationally. The two factions were on vivid display Thursday outside the Carl D. Perkins Federal Building, where hundreds of protesters gathered on the front sidewalk and across the street.
The news that Davis would be jailed sent cheers through the gay-rights supporters, while opponents expressed bewilderment and anger that the judge would take things so far. “Everyone is stunned by this development,” Mat Staver, chairman of the Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal organization representing Davis, said in a statement, “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.”
The Liberty Counsel is likely to appeal, but legal experts were skeptical that the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals would reconsider Bunning’s decision. Sam Marcosson, a professor at the Brandeis School of Law in Louisville, said Bunning is on “strong ground” because of Davis’s “clear failure to obey a court order.” Moreover, he said, courts typically give wide berth to judges to sanction those who violate their orders. “District court has wide discretion to frame a sanction and to utilize the appropriate sanction that will induce compliance with the court order,” he said. “That makes it a very high mountain for Davis and her lawyers to climb.”
The hearing continued into the afternoon, after Bunning assigned public defenders to several of Davis’s deputy clerks, who at Davis’s direction also have been denying marriage licenses. Elsewhere in Kentucky, politicians scrambled in an effort to defuse the situation. Earlier in the week, Republican and Democratic leaders in Frankfort reiterated calls for a compromise that would allow gay couples to get marriage licenses in Rowan County without forcing Davis to violate her faith. In a court motion, Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers asked Bunning not to hold Davis in contempt until the legislature could address confusion in state law resulting from the legalization of same-sex marriage.
The legislature is not slated to convene until next year, however, and Gov. Steve Beshear (D) has resisted calls to hold a special session to address the issue, especially since all but three of the state’s county clerks have complied with the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Davis has received some high-profile support from national political figures. On Wednesday, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, said in a statement that he had called Davis, a Democrat, to “offer my prayers and support.” “I let her know how proud I am of am of her for not abandoning her religious convictions and standing strong for religious liberty,” Huckabee said in the statement.
“She is showing more courage and humility than just about any federal office holder in Washington.” But she has been a target of searing criticism from same-sex marriage advocates. Some have called for criminal charges to be filed against Davis. She has been mocked for her own troubled marital history, including three divorces before her religious conversion four years ago.
Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, a gay rights group based in Louisville, said her situation has cast an ugly light on his state. “Folks like Kim Davis are creating a perception that will engender a stereotype that Kentuckians aren’t loving and don’t treat people with respect,” he said. “It’s not true.” For her part, Davis does not appear eager to be slapped with legal sanctions. In a court filing Wednesday, she asked Bunning not to hold her in contempt, arguing that doing so would violate her rights to due process and religious freedom.