COVINGTON, Ky. (AP) — A local elected official in a small Kentucky county testified Monday she could not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because signing the document would signal her approval of a union that violates her religious beliefs.
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis stopped issuing all marriage licenses June 27, one day after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages nationwide. Davis testified that she prayed and fasted for months before reaching the decision.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued her on behalf of two gay couples and two straight couples.
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear instructed county clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples immediately. At least two clerks refused. Clerks are elected officials. They cannot be removed from office unless impeached by the state legislature. Impeachment appears unlikely, given the political climate in the state capital.
The couples have asked U.S. District Judge David Bunning to order Davis to issue the marriage licenses. Bunning, who did not rule after the Monday hearing, could order Davis to issue licenses, and then fine her or put her in jail if she refuses. But he could not remove her from office.
Davis said Monday she is a member of a local Apostolic church, which is part of the Christian faith. She said she believes the Bible is “God’s holy word” and that it defines marriage as strictly between one man and one woman.
Kentucky law requires the county clerk to issue marriage licenses, or the local judge executive if the clerk is absent or the office is vacant. The licenses are valid for 39 days until someone — a minister or other qualified official — performs the ceremony and signs the form. The couple then returns the license to the clerk and has it recorded.
The wording on the license says the couple is “hereby authorized” to get married.
“If … I authorize that I’m saying I agree with it, and I can’t,” Davis said Monday in a sometimes tearful testimony before a packed courtroom.
Questioned by her attorney Roger Gannam, a lawyer with the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, Davis said she does not believe sin disqualifies a person from getting married. Questioned by Dan Canon, an attorney for the couples seeking marriage licenses, Davis said she could not answer on whether she thought clerks could use their religious beliefs to withhold marriage licenses from interracial couples or couples who have been divorced.
“I want to understand what your concept of discretion of a county clerk is. How far does it go?” Canon asked.
Bunning asked Davis a series of questions that appeared to suggest he viewed the marriage license process as “simply telling the state the information in the form is accurate.” And he seemed to favor a solution where a deputy clerk’s name, instead of Davis’, would be on the license. Of the six people who work for her, Davis said one has said he or she would be willing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
But Davis said she could not ask her employees to do something she won’t do herself. And she said that out of loyalty to her employees, she would not resign.
“If I resign, it solves nothing and helps nobody,” she said, especially when “there is a solution out there where everyone can be happy and no one is compromised in any way.”
Her solution is for Beshear to call a special session of the state legislature to pass a law protecting county clerks, possibly by allowing people to receive marriage licenses from the state online. Beshear has declined to call the legislature back to Frankfort, citing the $60,000 per day cost to taxpayers.
Bunning said the earliest he could rule would be mid-August. But it’s unclear how Davis — who has already ignored broader orders from the U.S. Supreme Court and the governor — would react to a judge’s order to issue marriage licenses.
“I’ll deal with that when the time comes,” she said.
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