FRANKFORT, Ky. – A Kentucky clerk’s office turned away two gay couples seeking marriage licenses Aug. 13, defying a federal judge’s order that dismissed her argument involving religious freedom.
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’ office rejected the couples’ bid for licenses just hours after the judge ruled she must do the opposite and wrote that the refusal “likely violated the constitutional rights of her constituents.”
Deputy clerk Nathan Davis says the office was advised by its attorneys with the Christian law firm Liberty Counsel to continue refusing same-sex couples as it appeals the ruling to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
James Yates and William Smith Jr., a couple for nearly a decade, were the second pair turned away Aug. 13. They also were turned away a month ago.
They described a disconnect between the office’s actions and their experience in the community of Morehead, a college town where they say has long been open and accepting. They held hands as they walked into the clerk’s office, and gay rights activists shouted “Good luck!” from the street, holding signs reading “clerk not clergy” and “obey the law.”
But they ultimately were denied a license.
Clerk Kim Davis has argued that her deeply held Christian beliefs prevent her from issuing licenses to same-sex couples. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled gay marriage bans unconstitutional, Davis stopped issuing licenses to any couple, gay or straight.
Five couples sued her, and U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning Aug. 12 ordered her to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling.
In Kentucky, county clerks issue marriage licenses, but someone else must “solemnize” the marriage before the license can be filed with the county clerk. Davis argued that issuing a same-sex marriage license that contains her signature is the same as her approving the marriage, which she said violates her Christian beliefs. But Bunning rejected that argument, saying Davis has likely violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on the government establishing a religion by “openly adopting a policy that promotes her own religious convictions at the expenses of others.”
“Davis remains free to practice her Apostolic Christian beliefs. She may continue to attend church twice a week, participate in Bible Study and minister to female inmates at the Rowan County Jail. She is even free to believe that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, as many Americans do,” Bunning wrote. “However, her religious convictions cannot excuse her from performing the duties that she took an oath to perform as Rowan County Clerk.”
Laura Landenwich, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the 28-page ruling reveals that the judge combed through each of Davis’ legal arguments and rejected each. Bunning said that although couples could get marriage licenses elsewhere, “why should they be required to?” He noted the surrounding counties require 30 minutes or one hour of travel and there are many “in this rural region of the state who simply do not have the physical, financial or practical means to travel.”
Bunning said state law does not allow the county judge-executive to issue marriage licenses unless Davis is absent from her job, and Bunning refused to deem Davis absent because she has a religious objection.
Bunning said issuing a marriage license does not constitute speech, saying the marriage license form “does not require the county clerk to condone or endorse same-sex marriage on religious or moral grounds.”
David Moore and David Ermold were the first couple to approach the office for a license. They’ve been together for 17 years, and it was the second time they’d been denied a license.
“If you want a statement from me, I will say that people are cruel, they are cruel, these people are cruel,” Ermold said. “This is how gay people are treated in this country. This is what it’s like. This is how it feels. If nothing comes of this, at least I hope that other people understand that this is wrong. It’s just wrong.”
The county judge executive’s secretary, whose name tag read Lois L. Hawkins, started to cry. She declined to comment, except to say it broke her heart and there was nothing she could do to help them.