The Kentucky Kerfuffle of Kim Davis

Thrice-divorced county clerk fights a losing battle against marriage equality

If you’ve been watching the news over the past several weeks, the name Kim Davis is one with which you’re all too familiar.

Davis is the elected clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, who was jailed on September 3 and held in contempt for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Since the Supreme Court declared marriage equality the law of the land, she has claimed she cannot do her job because of religious opposition. She’s refused to have her name appear on the marriage licenses of same-sex couples.

“It is not a light issue for me. It is a heaven or hell decision,” Davis said in a statement, citing her religion. She believes the law protecting our civil rights is ungodly and immoral.

Currently, Davis is out of jail, but the court has warned her not to interfere with issuing marriage licenses. She’s been forced to allow her employees to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but she will not affix her signature, i.e. her stamp of approval. There is now evidence that she may have tampered with license forms, thus violating the court order.

A federal appeals court denied Davis’ request to be exempted from a gubernatorial directive to comply with the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision. In a short order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit noted, “Davis has not demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on her federal constitutional claims.” This dispute—separate from her legal challenge to a court order instructing her to issue marriage licenses to gay couples—stems from a countersuit she filed against Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, whom she’s argued is partly responsible for her court troubles. These legal maneuverings stem from an original lawsuit filed against Davis by couples denied marriage licenses, following the Supreme Court‘s historic ruling.

Who is Kim Davis, anyway? She’s a Democrat, believe it or not, first elected as clerk last fall with 53 percent of the county’s vote. Although she began her duties in January, she’s no novice when it comes to knowing the demands of the job. Her mother was Rowan County clerk for 37 years, and Davis worked for her for 27 of those years. She is now 49 years old and has lived in Rowan County her entire life. Four and a half years ago, she became an Apostolic Christian, a faith that has a strict moral code, and she attends Solid Rock Apostolic Church in Morehead, the county seat. According to her attorney Mat Staver, “She said she played in the devil’s playground for a long time, and her life has been radically changed since then.”

Interestingly, Davis has been married four times to three different men. The first three marriages ended in divorce in 1994, 2006 and 2008. She’s the mother of twins, born five months after her divorce from her first husband. Her third husband is the biological father of the twins. Her second husband adopted those twins. Kim is currently on her fourth marriage. Her husband’s family introduced her to the Apostolic Christian faith in 2011.

While her personal life is her own business, when Davis began refusing to issue marriage licenses, she came under public scrutiny. Some of the exchanges between the couples and Davis made their way to YouTube, and the situation began attracting attention. On July 2, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Davis and Rowan County on behalf of four couples, two gay and two straight, who were denied licenses. On August 12, a federal judge ruled that Davis must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Not surprisingly, Davis appealed the ruling, claiming her religious liberties were under attack. On August 27, a federal appeals court declined to grant Davis a stay. On September 1, the Supreme Court did the exact same thing. And yet she continued to refuse to issue the licenses. On September 3, Davis was found in contempt and ordered behind bars until she complied.

During her brief imprisonment, five of Davis’ six deputies agreed to begin issuing marriage licenses in her absence. They began doing so on September 4. Because of this, Davis was released on September 8, ordered not to interfere with her deputies in their duties.

Davis walked out of Carter County Detention Center to a crowd of supporters, including presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, who emceed the rally. After walking onto the makeshift stage to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Davis burst into tears and thanked the crowd profusely while talking about the greatness of God. When asked if she would comply with the judge’s order, Staver answered, “Kim Davis cannot, will not violate her conscience.”

Since her return to work, Davis has held to that. Licenses have been issued by her deputies, but Davis refuses to sign them and claims that they’re invalid. She filed another appeal, and as of September 15, that was denied. But Davis' legal team still has three appeals pending in the Sixth Circuit: one involving her lawsuit against Beshear; another challenging her contempt of court status; and a third challenging the merits of the order that she must issue marriage licenses to all couples. The ruling is still out on those appeals, but public opinion is not in her favor. Many Kentucky taxpayers are peeved that public funds pay her salary while she refuses to do her job. Because Davis is an elected official, the governor has no legal authority to remove her, nor does she have plans to resign.

Sadly, the Kim Davis controversy is not new. It bears some similarity to one of the most contentious civil rights issues in American history: interracial marriage. It’s hard to believe, but until the 1960s, a man and a woman could not get married if they came from different races. Before the 1960s, state courts in Indiana, Georgia and Pennsylvania cited religious reasons for preventing people of different races from marrying. But then, as now, there is a separation of church and state. You cannot use religion as a guise or an excuse for discrimination or unlawful behavior. Davis is doing both.

Marriage equality is the law of the land. It’s here to stay. Either get on board with that, Kim Davis, or get out of the way.

–Nicole Matte and Aliya Leigh