Rowan County couples receive marriage licenses, jailed clerk denies validity

William Smith Jr. and James Yates on Friday became the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Kentucky's Rowan County.

Timothy D. Easley/AP
Rowan County deputy clerk Brian Mason (l.) hands James Yates, and his partner William Smith Jr., their marriage license at the Rowan County Judicial Center in Morehead, Ky., Friday. After four attempts, Mr. Yates and Mr. Smith were finally issued their marriage license.

[3:30 p.m. update: Kim Davis has asserted that the marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples on Friday are invalid. Her counsel has said that the licenses are "not worth the paper that they are written on."]

The Rowan County Clerk’s office opened today without Kim Davis for the first time since she refused to comply with a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and her six deputies now face the same moral conflict she has been wrestling with.

Deputy clerk Brian Mason issued the county's first license Friday morning to William Smith Jr. and James Yates, a couple for nearly a decade. But the historic moment was not a forgone conclusion, despite the Supreme Court's landmark Obergefell decision, a direct order from a federal district court, and the jailing of the county clerk.

Ms. Davis was jailed on Thursday after US District Judge David Bunning found her in contempt for refusing to honor a United States Supreme Court ruling in June that made gay marriages legal throughout the country. Davis has cited “God’s authority” in her refusal to do her official duty, becoming a darling of social conservatives for refusing to compromise on her religious beliefs.

Judge Bunning indicated that Davis would remain in jail at least a week, saying he would revisit his decision after the deputy clerks have had time to comply with his order.

The clerk’s office was closed on Thursday while Davis and her staff appeared before Bunning. After ordering Davis to jail, the judge threatened each of her six employees with the same punishment if they also refused to comply with his order. Five of the clerks agreed, some reluctantly. The one holdout was Davis’ son, Nathan.

During the hearing, Bunning looked at Nathan Davis and told him not to interfere with his fellow employees on Friday. The judge said he did not want “any shenanigans.”

“That would show a level of disrespect for the court’s order,” Bunning said. “I’m hoping that cooler heads will prevail.”

The other clerks who did agree to issue licenses said they have been trying to balance personal convictions, family responsibilities, and faith.

Melissa Thompson, a deputy clerk and a preacher’s daughter, said “this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

“I don’t really want to, but I will comply with the law,” she added.

“I don’t hate anybody,” she continued. “None of us do.”

Davis, meanwhile, has triggered a national debate over religious freedom laws in the United States. Calling her refusal to comply a “Heaven or Hell decision,” she has said she hopes the Kentucky legislature will pass a law allowing her to keep her job while following her conscience, but state lawmakers do not reconvene until January and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has refused to call a special legislative session, saying the session would be unnecessary and too costly.

But the debate has persisted, particularly among Republican candidates for president looking to win the prized evangelical vote. John Eastman, a Chapman University constitutional scholar, told The Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson that Davis’s arrest “moves the needle on the religious liberty debate.”

GOP candidates Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have all made statements of support, with Senator Paul calling her protest part of “the American way.”

But Bunning, a Republican appointee, said the court “cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order.”

“If you give people the opportunity to choose which orders they follow, that’s what potentially causes problems,” he added.

However, to some, the issue conflicts with rights of religious freedom, which is enshrined in the constitution.

"There should be a way to protect the religious freedom and conscience rights of individuals working in the office" Senator Rubio said in a statement.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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