MOREHEAD, Ky. — Defying the Supreme Court and saying she is acting “under God’s authority,” a county clerk in Kentucky denied marriage licenses to gay couples Tuesday, less than a day after the court rejected her request for a delay.
A raucous scene unfolded shortly after 8 a.m. at the Rowan County Courthouse here as two same-sex couples walked into the county clerk’s office, followed by a throng of journalists and chanting protesters on both sides of the issue.
One couple, David Ermold and David Moore, tried to engage the county clerk, Kim Davis, in a debate before the cameras, but as she had before, she turned them away, saying repeatedly that she would not issue licenses to any couples, gay or straight.
“Under whose authority?” Ermold asked.
“Under God’s authority,” Davis replied.
Davis, who took office in January, succeeding her mother, who had been the county clerk for 37 years, says that same-sex marriage violates her Christian beliefs.
Her case stands as the most conspicuous official resistance remaining to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in June legalizing same-sex marriage and is part of a number of legal challenges centering on the obligations of public officials and private businesses who say same-sex marriage conflicts with their religious faith.
Some other local officials still refuse to issue marriage licenses, including probate judges in 11 Alabama counties. But most such challenges have faded, as officials who previously refused licenses to same-sex couples have reversed course.
Davis has been cheered by religious conservatives from around the country, though legal experts say she has almost no chance of prevailing. On Tuesday, lawyers for same-sex couples asked Judge David L. Bunning of US District Court to hold her in contempt and fine her, and a hearing on that motion was set for Thursday in District Court in Ashland. The lawyers did not ask for jail time, which the judge could also impose.
Davis said in a statement released by her lawyers that she had received death threats but said she would neither resign nor relent. “To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience,” she said. She added: “I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s word.”
Her defiance presented the state and courts with a conundrum because she is an elected official and not easily removed. The state Legislature, where each party controls one chamber, could impeach her, but that is considered unlikely in this conservative state.
Officials have said it might be possible to charge her with official misconduct, a misdemeanor; a conviction could result in a court order removing her. The county attorney has declined to take up the question, referring it to the state’s attorney general, Jack Conway, a Democrat who is running for governor. His office has said it is looking into the matter.
Davis stopped issuing all marriage licenses after the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in June, in the case Obergefell v. Hodges.
After Governor Steven L. Beshear told county clerks to issue marriage licenses to all eligible couples, Davis filed suit in federal court, arguing that she should be excused from the obligation, given her Apostolic Christian faith. Bunning, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and is the son of a former Republican senator, Jim Bunning, ruled against her, as did the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals, and she appealed to the Supreme Court.
On Monday, a stay granted by Bunning expired, and the Supreme Court rejected without comment Davis’s emergency application for a new stay, pending the outcome of her appeal. That left her no legal grounds to refuse to grant licenses to same-sex couples.
“There’s no doubt about how this saga comes to an end,” said Ronald J. Krotoszynski Jr., a constitutional law specialist at the University of Alabama who has followed same-sex marriage cases. “The couples in Rowan County who seek marriage licenses will have them.”