In a seemingly contradictory series of actions, a federal judge ruled in favor of requiring a Kentucky county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, denied the clerk’s request to delay the decision, and then delayed it himself.
For Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk, the decision and subsequent delay have bought her time to appeal without letting her off the hook completely. For the two same-sex couples who brought the case against her, the actions have brought more waiting.
Though US District Judge David Bunning wrote that delaying the ruling would give same sex couples a “favorable legal ruling with no teeth” and would “prolong the likely violation of their constitutional rights,” he granted the delay nonetheless, acknowledging that "emotions are running high on both sides of this debate."
In opposition to the US Supreme Court decision giving the green light to same-sex marriage around the country, Ms. Davis has stopped issuing marriage licenses in her county altogether. "This is not something I decided because of this decision that came down," she said in court last month. "It was thought-out and, you know, I sought God on it."
Her religious convictions – as well as those of other opponents of same-sex marriage – have become the center of the debate on which hinges the question: Should one be forced to perform an action that is legally required but clashes with one’s religious beliefs?
Judge Bunning said issuing a marriage license does not impede Davis’s freedom to believe what she wants. "However, her religious convictions cannot excuse her from performing the duties that she took an oath to perform as Rowan County Clerk," he wrote.
Her lawyer compared forcing her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples was tantamount to requiring a nurse to perform abortions, a noncombatant to fire on an enemy soldier, or a state official to participate in executions against their will.
Davis has been in the county clerk business for 27 years. She began working for her mother, whose position she now holds, and her son now works for her.
She has said passing the onus of issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples off to another clerk would not be a viable solution, since for her it is equivalent to acceding. "If I say that I authorize that, I'm saying I agree with it, and I can't," Davis said in court.
She said her beliefs are formed by “God's holy word," but the prosecution drew out a point that could be seen as a contradiction: Davis conceded that she does not treat divorce the way she treats same-sex marriage, though divorce is banned in many interpretations of the Bible.
Davis herself has been divorced, remarried, and divorced again, and when asked if she would issue a marriage license to a person who has been divorced she said, "That's between them and God."
Her counsel immediately filed an appeal Thursday and told her to stand fast as the court battle plays out. The standoff could end with Davis being held in contempt of court, which carries both civil and criminal penalties.
On Thursday, James Yates, who wants to marry his partner, William Smith, left the courthouse for a second time without a marriage license.
‘I still get frustrated sometimes, but then I take a deep breath and go on,’ Mr. Yates told the Associated Press. ‘I know it's going to get resolved. It's just a matter of when.’