Federal judge rules that Rowan County clerk must issue marriage licenses despite religious objections

08/12/2015 08:05 PM

U.S. District Judge David Bunning issued a preliminary injunction on Wednesday mandating Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis resume issuing marriage licenses despite her religious objections to same-sex marriage.

Bunning, in his ruling, said Davis is failing to uphold the oath she took to defend the U.S. Constitution by declining to issue marriage licenses after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on same-sex marriage. The clerk “is simply being asked to signify that couples meet the legal requirements to marry,” Bunning wrote.

“The State is not asking her to condone same-sex unions on moral or religious grounds, nor is it restricting her from engaging in a variety of religious activities,” he wrote. “Davis remains free to practice her Apostolic Christian beliefs. She may continue to attend church twice a week, participate in Bible Study and minister to female inmates at the Rowan County Jail.

“She is even 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.”

Bunning’s decision can be viewed here: Rowan County marriage license injunction.pdf

The ruling will “most certainly” be appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and, if necessary, the Supreme Court, said Roger Gannam, senior litigation counsel for the Liberty Counsel, which is representing Davis. The appeals court is the same that overturned a prior district court ruling against Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban, ultimately sending the case to the Supreme Court.

Davis, who has accused Gov. Steve Beshear in a lawsuit of violating her religious rights by ordering county clerks to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling according to a report by the Lexington Herald-Leader, will also seek a stay on Bunning’s decision, said Gannam, adding that he had briefly spoken with the county clerk late Wednesday.

“The gist of the ruling is that the government can, according to this court, the government can compel an individual to violate her sincerely held religious beliefs,” Gannam said in a phone interview, “and we disagree with that as a matter of constitutional law.”

“It was not necessary in this case for the court to rule the way it did,” he added.

Daniel Canon, a Louisville attorney who, alongside the American Civil Liberties Union, is representing two heterosexual couples and two homosexual couples denied marriage licenses by Davis, heralded Bunning’s injunction, which “stands for the proposition that an individual’s religious beliefs are not going to be able to dictate the policies of their entire office if that person’s an elected official.”

“People already have religious liberties in their individual capacities that are guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and my clients are not seeking to take those away from anybody for any reason,” he said in a phone interview.

“And we strongly support Ms. Davis’s right to have her own beliefs and to let those guide her in any way she sees fit unless and until it becomes part of her policy in conducting the business on behalf of the citizens of Rowan County. For this to have gone any other way would signal to county clerks and any other elected official that they’re allowed to govern according to their own religious beliefs … and that’s not the way we do things in the United States of America, the reason being because it creates all these little de facto theocracies.”

The contentious issue of same-sex marriage will emerge in the upcoming legislative session, with bills already pre-filed to include the issuance of marriage licenses and solemnization of marriages in Kentucky’s religious freedom law.

Despite the high court’s June ruling, a majority of respondents in the latest Bluegrass Poll, conducted by SurveyUSA for the Lexington Herald-Leader, WKYT-TV, The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV, remain opposed to same-sex marriage, with 53 percent against the unions versus 38 in support.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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