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MOREHEAD, Ky. — August 23, 2015. Nearly two months after the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, a county clerk’s office here — in defiance of a federal court order — turned away several gay couples seeking marriage licenses on Thursday, taking a stand that has infuriated gay rights advocates but buoyed Christian conservatives who insist their religious freedoms are being violated.
Kim Davis, the clerk in Rowan County, who says her Christian faith bars her from authorizing same-sex marriages, has refused to issue any licenses, either to same-sex or heterosexual couples after the historic ruling in June in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. She has ignored a direct order from Gov. Steven L. Beshear, that she do so.
On Wednesday, Judge David L. Bunning of United States District Court for Eastern Kentucky, ruling in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of four couples — two same-sex and two heterosexual — ordered Ms. Davis to resume issuing licenses. But lawyers for Ms. Davis immediately appealed and sought a stay; Thursday morning, Ms. Davis did not show up at work
Struggling for Gay Equality in the South
Outside the brick and granite county courthouse on Main Street here, a small group of protesters gathered under a rainbow-colored umbrella as David Ermold, 41, and his partner, David Moore, 39, arrived around 8 a.m. seeking a license — only to be told by Ms. Davis’ deputies that none would be issued.
“People are cruel, and this is wrong,” said Mr. Ermold. He and Mr. Moore have lived in Moorehead for 11 years, and said they felt humiliated by their experience, and by the suggestion from Ms. Davis’s lawyers that they could go to another Kentucky county to get a marriage license.
“Telling people to go to another county is like saying, ‘We don’t want your kind of people here,’ ” Mr. Moore said.
Advocates for gay rights say Ms. Davis, a member of an Apostolic Christian church who says she attends “whenever the doors are open,” is an outlier. The vast majority of public officials are carrying out the Obergefell decision — even if they disagree with it — and gay men and lesbians across America are marrying largely with ease. But Morehead, a city of about 6,900 people in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is not the only pocket of resistance.
In Alabama, probate judges in 13 of 67 counties are, like Ms. Davis, declining to issue marriage licenses to anyone. One, Judge Nick Williams of Washington County, has urged the state justices to issue a “landmark ruling” to defy the Supreme Court. And State Senator Greg Albritton is calling for the state to get out of the marriage license business entirely.
“We’re going to have litigation in Alabama, I am certain of it,” Mr. Albritton said, “over whether probate judges have a choice to accept or decline to issue the license and conduct the ceremony.”
In Kentucky, the A.C.L.U. suit is the nation’s first legal test, post-Obergefell, of how far a public official can go in resisting the decision. Ms. Davis is one of two county clerks — the state has 120 — who have defied Governor Beshear’s directive. She is also suing the governor, claiming that he violated her religious freedom.
“Her case will go nowhere,” said Katherine Franke, an expert on sexuality law, as well as religious exemptions, at Columbia Law School, earlier this week, adding that previous cases in which public officials have sought not to perform their duties on religious grounds have ended much the same way. “She doesn’t get to pick and choose which of her duties she will perform.”
But Christian conservatives are watching closely.
“This case could be a marker of how the religious freedom aspects of same-sex marriage are going to be worked out,” said Roger Gannam, who represents Ms. Davis on behalf of Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit organization in Florida that specializes in religious exceptions cases. “Many in Christian circles believe we are only now beginning the culture wars over marriage.”
Those culture wars are playing out with vigor in Morehead and Rowan County, where some churches sent congregants by the busload to rally for Ms. Davis when she appeared in court. “We feel very proud of her,” said the Rev. Harley Sexton Jr. of Sharkey Freewill Baptist Church, “that she has taken a religious stand against the state.”
But Morehead is also home to Morehead State University, which gives the city a liberal streak. At a downtown coffee shop and bookstore, where organic soaps and locally made jewelry share display space with books, even patrons uncomfortable with same-sex marriage said this week that Ms. Davis must follow the new law of the land.
“Most people believe she has the right to feel the way she does,” said Robin Mirus, a mortgage loan officer, “but when anybody in public office takes a pledge, they are obligated to do the job that they said they were going to do.”
Judge Bunning agreed. Ms. Davis, he wrote, is “free to believe that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, as many Americans do. However, her religious convictions cannot excuse her from performing the duties that she took an oath to perform as Rowan County clerk.”
Ms. Davis spent 27 years as the Rowan County deputy clerk, serving under her mother, before winning election in her own right in 2014. She declined to be interviewed, but her court testimony makes it clear that she saw the conflict coming.
As the Supreme Court was considering the Obergefell case, she testified, she emailed state lawmakers, pleading with them “to get a bill on the floor to help protect clerks who had a moral issue.” Her decision to quit issuing licenses to all couples rather than single out same-sex couples was one, she said, “that I had prayed and fasted over weekly.”
Other clerks had similar qualms, said Chris Jobe, president of the Kentucky County Clerks Association. After the Obergefell ruling, 60 clerks in Kentucky agreed to sign a petition to the governor saying they objected on religious grounds. But most, fearing they would lose their jobs, decided in the end to issue licenses.
“I’m a Christian and I firmly believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” Mr. Jobe said. “But I have a family and kids. It’s been a very stressful time.”
April Miller, 54, a professor of special education at Morehead State, said she and her partner, Karen Roberts, “were ecstatic” when the Supreme Court decision came. The two have been together, first as friends and then as partners, for nearly two decades, and have raised Ms. Roberts’s 21-year-old daughter, who has intellectual disabilities. Then they heard that Ms. Davis was not issuing marriage licenses.
“I looked at Karen and I was like, ‘What do you mean? She can’t do this,’ ” Ms. Miller said. “I really thought when somebody started pushing it, she would fold.”
A few days after the ruling, the two left their home at the edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest, hopped into their yellow Volkswagen Beetle and drove the winding road down to the county courthouse, expecting to get a marriage license but were refused. They tried again Thursday, with the same outcome.
Kevin Holloway and Jody Fernandez also tried getting a marriage license in the days after the Obergefell ruling. After years of referring to Ms. Fernandez as “my wife,” Mr. Holloway said he had hoped to “make it official.” But like Ms. Miller and Ms. Roberts, they left the courthouse here empty-handed. All are plaintiffs in the A.C.L.U. suit.
“I don’t want to have a gay wedding — I want to have one with Jody — but I don’t care if other people do,” said Mr. Holloway. Of Ms. Davis, he said, “Our Pledge of Allegiance says, ‘With liberty and justice for all.’ She doesn’t get to decide who ‘all’ is.”
Reaction in the community has been mixed. A Rowan County Rights Coalition has sprung up to support the plaintiffs; its members appear at the courthouse waving rainbow flags. But Mr. Holloway, who owns a shop that sews heavyweight fabrics, said he has been warned to drop the suit “if you know what’s good for your business.” Ms. Roberts said she got a cool reception at her hair salon, while Ms. Miller said her secretary had told her she was “praying for my soul.”
Both couples remain optimistic, and both are planning weddings. Ms. Miller and Ms. Roberts have already bought matching diamond bands.