Why did Pope Francis secretly meet with Kim Davis?

During his historic 10-day visit to the US and Cuba, the pope met with the controversial Kentucky clerk who was jailed for refusing to provide marriage licenses to same sex couples.

Timothy D. Easley/AP/File
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis makes a statement to the media at the front door of the Rowan County Judicial Center in Morehead, Ky., Sept. 14. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear chastised the county clerk for her 'absurd,' 'forlorn,' and 'obtuse' stand off with the courts over issuing marriage licenses to same sec couples.

[Update: Story updated at 11:20 a.m. Eastern time.]

In the midst of a historic trip to the United States, filled with visits to the United Nations to push for action on climate change, a meeting with inmates in Philadelphia, and a speech before Congress, Pope Francis also found time to meet with a more controversial figure: Kim Davis.

The pope met with Ms. Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed this month for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, on Sept. 24, her attorney said, with Francis reportedly telling her to “stay strong.” 

Davis’ attorney Mat Staver told CBS News on Tuesday night that the pope had met with Davis and her husband at the Vatican embassy in Washington during his six-day trip.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi confirmed Wednesday that the meeting took place, but offered no further comment.

Previously, Francis had appeared to express support for Ms. Davis’ right to deny the licenses to same-sex couples based on her religious views, without naming her specifically, as The Christian Science Monitor reported. She is an Apostolic Christian, but her parents are Roman Catholic.

During his flight back to Rome on Sunday, reporters had asked the pope whether he generally supports the right of government officials to refuse to perform their duties because of a moral objection to a particular task.

"I can't have in mind all the cases that can exist about conscientious objection,” Francis responded, according to NBC News, “but yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right.

“And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right,” he said, adding, in what may have been a reference to Davis, “It is a human right, and if a government official is a human person, he has that right.”

Before her attorney’s revelation that Davis had met with the pope, Francis had been seen as mostly avoiding the contentious issue of same-sex marriage, even as he leapt into discussions on other controversial issues like climate change, prompting a dispute with Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush.

Mr. Bush, who is Catholic, had said the pope’s calls for action should be disregarded because “he’s not a scientist, he’s a religious leader.” Before pursuing the priesthood, the Nation reported, the Argentinian-born Francis had trained as a chemical technician and worked as a chemist.

But the pope’s endorsement of the rights of conscientious objectors may put him closer in line with some conservative Christians, including several presidential candidates who have said Davis, who was jailed for five days before being released, is standing up for religious freedom.

But Davis’ actions remain controversial, with some civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing in court papers in Kentucky that she continues to refuse her obligation to her position by altering marriage licenses.

Mr. Staver told CBS he had waited to disclose the meeting with Pope Francis because he did not want it to impact the pope’s broader message and goals during his 10-day trip to the US and Cuba.

He said Davis attempted to keep a low profile while meeting with the pope in Washington, arriving at the Vatican embassy in a sports utility vehicle with her hair in a different style than her normal look. He said he was not present during the meeting.

“We didn't want the pope's visit to be overshadowed with Kim Davis," Staver told the network.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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