Kim Davis returned to work Monday for the first time since she was jailed for denying marriage licenses to gay couples and said she had been faced with a "seemingly impossible choice" between following her conscience and losing her freedom.
With her voice shaking, the Kentucky county clerk said she would not interfere with deputy clerks who continue to hand out the licenses, but Davis declared that the documents would not be authorized by her, and she questioned their validity.
Davis, an Apostolic Christian who spent five days in jail for disobeying a federal judge, read from a hand-written statement outside the Rowan County courthouse, saying she was torn between obeying God and the judge's directive, which she said "forces me to disobey God."
The first couple to apply for a license Monday was Shannon Wampler and Carmen Collins. They stood at the counter for a half-hour, dozens of reporters gathering behind them and microphones bobbing above their heads.
Deputy clerk Brian Mason — sitting behind a sign that reads "marriage license deputy" — gave them a license despite his boss's objections and after a delay because of a printer problem. Protesters in the back heckled Mason, but he ignored them, initialed the license and shook the couple's hands.
As Davis indicated in her statement, the couple's license had the words "pursuant to federal court order" typed on it.
One protester waved a Bible. Elizabeth Johnson from Ohio screamed, "Don't let Kim's five days in jail be in vain."
Marriage-equality supporters chanted, "Love has won."
Davis, a Democrat, sat in her office with the door closed and the blinds drawn. She became a hero to many conservative Christians when she stopped issuing the licenses after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Her profile rose when she was jailed, as protesters, presidential candidates and news crews from across the county descended on the small town of Morehead.
The governor, the attorney general and the county attorney have said the licenses are valid.
"I don't want to have this conflict. I don't want to be in the spotlight. And I certainly don't want to be a whipping post," Davis said. "I am no hero. I'm just a person that's been transformed by the grace of God, who wants to work, be with my family. I just want to serve my neighbors quietly without violating my conscience."
Mason, a 38-year-old former retail worker who has unwittingly fallen into the middle of the issue, also has supporters. A man delivered a gift bag to him today with bourbon balls and a candle. A Facebook support group was created for him.
As he prepared to issue the license, Mason casually chewed gum and scrolled on his computer with dozens of cameras in his face, including people standing on ladders to get a better shot of him.
Hecklers shouted "coward" at him from the side of room. He smiled at them and turned back to his work.
Mason said he spoke with Davis only briefly Monday. He's worked for her for a year and a half, he said.
"It's a little crazy," he said of the cameras trained on him. "But I try not to let it bother me." He declined to comment on his personal opinion of gay marriage or Davis' defiance.
A lawyer for Davis said the license issued Monday did not violate Davis's conscience.
"If it's satisfactory to the ... court, then I think we will have found that win-win solution that we have been asking for all along," attorney Harry Mihet told a news conference.
The issue has drawn some of the most fervent Christian activists from across the country. Their trucks were parked up and down the street, bearing signs that read "sodomy ruins nations" and "repent."
One truck, with a North Carolina license plate, had a poster-sized photo of an aborted fetus on the side. Others, from Iowa and Colorado, featured photos of two men kissing with doomsday warnings about the sin of homosexuality.
Elsewhere stood white-topped tents and loudspeakers blaring Christian music. People were shouting Bible verses from the sidewalk. A plane flew overhead trailing a rainbow banner.
US District Judge David Bunning held Davis in contempt and ordered her to jail Sept. 3 after she refused to issue the licenses. In her absence, her deputies issued at least seven licenses to gay couples and altered the forms to exclude Davis' name.
In her statement, Davis said: "I love my deputy clerks, and I hate that they have been caught in the middle of any of this. If any of them feel that they must issue an authorized license to avoid being thrown in jail, I understand their tough choice, and I will take no action against them."