ASHLAND, Ky. — A defiant county clerk went to jail Thursday for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, but five of her deputies agreed to issue the licenses themselves, potentially ending the church-state standoff in Rowan County, Kentucky.
U.S. District Judge David Bunning said he had no choice but to jail Kim Davis for contempt after she insisted that her “conscience will not allow” her to follow federal court rulings on gay marriage.
“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.”
Bunning offered to release Davis if she would promise not to interfere with her employees issuing marriage licenses on Friday morning. But Davis, through her attorneys, rejected that offer and chose to stay in jail.
Gay and lesbian couples vowed to appear at the Rowan County clerk’s office for the fifth time on Friday to see if the deputy clerks would keep their promises.
“We’re going to the courthouse tomorrow to get our marriage license and we’re very excited about that,” said April Miller, who has been engaged to Karen Roberts for 11 years.
As word of Davis’ jailing spread outside the federal courthouse, hundreds of people chanted and screamed, “Love wins! Love wins!” while Davis’ supporters booed.
Davis’ lawyer, Roger Gannam, said it was the first time in history an American citizen has been jailed for believing that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. He compared her willingness to accept imprisonment to what Martin Luther King Jr. did to advance civil rights.
“Kim Davis represents the best of us and everyone should lament and mourn the fact that her freedom has been taken away for what she believes,” Gannam said.
Laura Landenwich, an attorney for the plaintiffs, rejected the comparison.
“Ms. Davis is in an unfortunate situation of her own creation. She is not a martyr. No one created a martyr today,” Landenwich said, adding “she holds the keys to her jail cell.”
Speaking earlier from the bench, Bunning said it would set up a “slippery slope” to allow an individual’s ideas to supersede the courts’ authority.
“Her good faith belief is simply not a viable defense,” Bunning said. “I myself have genuinely held religious beliefs … but I took an oath.”
“Mrs. Davis took an oath,” he added. “Oaths mean things.”
Davis is represented by the Liberty Counsel, which advocates in court for religious freedom. Before she was led away, Davis said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide conflicts with the vows she made when she became a born-again Christian.
“I promised to love Him with all my heart, mind and soul because I wanted to make heaven my home,” Davis said.
Miller and Roberts were denied a marriage license four times by Davis or her deputies since the June ruling. Miller testified that one of the deputy clerks told her to apply in another county. “That’s kind of like saying we don’t want gays or lesbians here. We don’t think you are valuable,” she said.
Rather than be fined, jailed or lose their jobs, five of the clerks told the judge they would issue the licenses. Her son, Nathan Davis, refused, but the judge said that wouldn’t matter and he wouldn’t be punished, as long as the others complied.
“I don’t really want to, but I will comply with the law,” said one, Melissa Thompson. “I’m a preacher’s daughter and this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” she added. “I don’t hate anybody … None of us do.”
Davis, an Apostolic Christian whose critics mock her for being on her fourth marriage, stopped serving all couples after the Supreme Court ruling in June. Many supporters and even some Republican presidential candidates have rallied behind her.
“People are calling the office all the time asking to send money,” she testified. “I myself have not solicited any money.”
Davis said she hopes the Legislature will change Kentucky laws to find some way for her to keep her job while following her conscience. But unless the governor convenes a costly special session, they won’t meet until January. “Hopefully our legislature will get something taken care of,” she told the judge.
Until then, the judge said, he has no alternative but to keep her behind bars. Davis stood and thanked Bunning, pausing briefly to search the crowded courtroom for familiar faces before she was led away.
Later photos showed Davis being escorted from the courthouse in what appeared to be handcuffs with a towel draped over her hands. She was taken to the Carter County Detention Center in a white, windowless van.
It’s unclear exactly how long she’ll remain in jail. Davis’ attorneys said the judge’s order would keep her in jail indefinitely. But Bunning indicated he would revisit his decision in a week, giving the deputy clerks time to comply with his order.
“The legislative and executive branches do have the ability to make changes,” Bunning said earlier in the hearing. “It’s not this court’s job to make changes. I don’t write law.”
Davis served as her mother’s deputy in the clerk’s office for 27 years before she was elected as a Democrat to succeed her mother in November. As an elected official, she can be removed only if the Legislature impeaches her, which is unlikely in a deeply conservative state.
Former Republican President George W. Bush nominated David Bunning for a lifetime position as a federal judge in 2001 when he was just 35 years old, halfway through his father’s first term in the Senate. But Bunning has been anything but a sure thing for conservative causes, ruling against a partial-birth abortion ban and in favor of a Gay-Straight high school club.