When the Supreme Court legalized marriage equality throughout the United States, I was one of those millions of people naive enough to think that government officials would obey the law. Not so. In several counties and other municipalities across the nation, same-gender couples cannot get married because the law means nothing to some elected officials. One of them, Rowan County’s clerk, Kim Davis has become a cause célèbre since her refusal to issue marriage licenses put her first in front of a judge and now in jail. One of three Kentucky county clerks refusing to issue licenses to same-sex couples, she maintains that she cannot because of her “religious beliefs.”
After Federal District Court Judge David L. Bunning ordered Davis to issue licenses, both the 6th Circuit Court and the Supreme Court refused to delay the order while she appealed. Bunning ordered her to jail, saying, “The court cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order.” In short, Davis is paid by taxpayers to issue marriage licenses but refuses to issue licenses to couples she finds morally objectionable, citing “God’s authority.” She could get another job which doesn’t violate her religious beliefs, but she chooses not to do so. Davis was jailed, not because she is opposed to marriage equality but because she ignored a court order. She refused to follow the law and is now in contempt of court.
Davis’ support includes a white supremacist group who plans to rally in her favor and most of the GOP presidential candidates. Only Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Carly Fiorina said that she should do her job. As usual, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) played both sides:
“While the clerk’s office has a governmental duty to carry out the law, there should be a way to protect the religious freedom and conscience rights of individuals working in the office.”
Rubio is right that Davis is required to carry out the law. She swore an oath that she would follow the U.S. Constitution and the law. [I provided the entire Kentucky oath below because it’s a bit bizarre.]
“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 County Clerk according to law; and I do further solemnly swear (or affirm) 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.”
Rowan County deputy clerks said Davis “terrorized” them and they were afraid to issue licenses. A question, however, is whether the licenses are valid. Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel that is affiliated with Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, says that the licenses are void because they lack Davis’ authorization. The form states that is must contain “an authorization statement of the county clerk issuing the license,” but state law requires only “the signature of the county clerk or deputy clerk issuing the license” to be valid. Rowan County attorney, Cecil Watkins, said that these licenses are valid. The deputy clerks are issuing marriage license on the order of a federal court judge.
Staver compares Davis’ imprisonment to the boycotting of Jews in Germany during the Nazi regime. He said, “This is the new persecution of Christians here in this country.” Staver thinks Davis is doing her job. He said, “She has a right to this employment and you don’t lose your constitutional liberties just because you are employed by the government.” Members of Kentucky’s legal community think that Staver and his partners “may have violated their duty to tell her she had no case.”
Davis’ current husband, Joe, demonstrated outside the courthouse with a sign that read, “Welcome to Sodom and Gomorrah.” About the judge who jailed his wife, Joe Davis said, “He’s a butt.” And “a bully.” The governor of Kentucky? “No backbone.” He also said, “Just because five Supreme Court judges make a ruling, it’s not a law.”
Other protesters opposed Davis’ actions. [Photo by Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times] Matt Bevin, GOP candidate for governor, suggested changing the state law for issuing license, perhaps to a form that couples could get online, to end the standoff. Gov. Beshear said he doesn’t want to call a special legislative session; thatleaves the situation unsettled until next year.
A tweet from best-selling Christian author Rachel Held Evans describes the hypocrisy of Davis and her supporters:
Even former vice-president Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz think that Davis should do her job. Appearing on Newsmax, Dick Cheney pointed out that “it’s the law of the land.” Steve Malzberg tried the argument that forcing Davis to do her job would lead to forcing churches to perform same-sex weddings, Liz Cheney snapped:
“As my dad said, it is the law of the land. The court has ruled. And she’s not an employee of a church or synagogue, she’s a government employee. So, she has an obligation to uphold the law.”
Davis has a very good reason for not resigning her job—actually 80,000 of them. That’s what she gets paid. In rural Kentucky, $80,000 plus benefits is a hefty annual salary for a 9-to-5 job where she can terrify the people who work for her. She’s used to a good salary: for 24 years she worked as county’s chief deputy clerk for her mother who established her compensation—common practice in Kentucky. In 2011, county residents complained about her salary of over $63,000, far more than the $38,000 that the Chief Deputy Sheriff was paid. The county clerk’s salary budget was cut for 2012.
When Davis’ mother didn’t run for re-election in 2014, Davis ran for county clerk and won the general election by about 500 votes. After she was elected she said, “I promise [that I will] follow the statutes of this office to the letter.” Her four-year term began in January 2015.
The Lexington-Herald Leader editorial board wrote:
“We’ve never heard of a clerk denying a license to a divorced person, a philanderer, someone who’s abused a partner or neglected children. It’s easy to imagine the outrage and chaos that would ensue if clerks began morality-testing prospective opposite-gender spouses. But that’s exactly the right that Davis is demanding. She wants to pick and choose, based on her beliefs, which legally qualified couples will get marriage licenses….
“Davis can resign if she’s morally unable to issue the marriage licenses while the appeal is pending. Law-abiding, taxpaying Rowan County citizens have been denied their constitutional rights for almost two months while Davis has kept her job.”
Davis is now married for the fourth time. Her first three marriages ended in divorce in 1994, 2006, and 2008. Her twins, fathered by her third husband, were born five months after her divorce from her first husband and have been adopted by her second husband who is also her fourth husband.
When the issue is resolved, Kim Davis will very likely become a star on the Christian lecture circuit like the bakers in Oregon who didn’t want to “participate” in a same-sex wedding by making a cake. Unconfirmed reports indicate that she will appear at two different family values-themed rallies with Donald Trump and that Sarah Palin wants her to be the next interview subject for an upcoming On Point television broadcast. Someone should ask her about biblical verses mandating that people obey the government.
One person rejected for a marriage license in Rowan County said:
“When you’re gay and you grow up in Kentucky, you kind of get used to hiding who you are, accommodating other people and making them feel comfortable. You don’t realize how much of your own dignity you’ve given away. It catches up to you.”
In his opinion legalizing marriage equality across the United States, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “[Same-sex couples] ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” Some day Kentucky may do the same.