Kim Davis, the former Kentucky county clerk who went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, has been found guilty of violating a gay couple’s constitutional rights.
On March 18, U.S. District Judge David Bunning, of the Eastern District of Kentucky, found Davis, the former Rowan County Clerk — who lost her 2018 re-election campaign after switching to the Republican Party — guilty of violating the constitutional rights of David Ermold, a one-time political opponent, and David Moore, who were one of the same-sex couples who unsuccessfully tried to obtain a license from the clerk’s office back in 2015.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which overturned Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriage, Davis implemented a policy of refusing to issue all marriage licenses.
Citing “God’s authority,” she argued that her sincerely held religious beliefs prevent her from issuing licenses bearing her name and title to same-sex couples.
But because she did not want to be accused of discriminating only against same-sex couples, she imposed a blanket ban on issuing any marriage licenses as long as her name and title were included on the form.
Davis was eventually sued by four couples, both straight and gay, who argued that they were harmed by her refusal to issue marriage licenses.
After defying a court order to allow her office to issue marriage licenses, Davis was jailed for five days for “contempt of court” — a development that earned her praise from Republican politicians and made her a celebrity in conservative circles.
Davis was later sued by Ermold and Moore, as well as another gay couple, for “mental anguish, emotional distress, humiliation and reputation damages,” according to WKYT.
After seven years of drawn out legal proceedings, Bunning –- who was the judge that had placed Davis in jail for contempt of court — ruled last week that Davis had violated Ermold and Moore’s constitutional rights when she denied them a marriage license.
“It is readily apparent that Obergefell recognizes Plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment right to marry. It is also readily apparent that Davis made a conscious decision to violate Plaintiffs’ right,” Bunning wrote in his decision. “[The Plaintiffs] sought marriage licenses from either Defendant Davis or the deputy clerks who were acting in conformance with the policy instituted by Davis—a policy directing deputy clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses in the wake of Obergefell.”
However, the legal fight is far from over, as Bunning did not rule on whether or not Davis is financially responsible for damages owed to the couple. That question must be answered in trial.
Michael Gartland, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told WKYT that his clients were elated by Bunning’s latest ruling.
“As the court notes in the decision, this case has been pending since 2015,” he said. “They couldn’t be more happy that they’re finally going to get their day in court and they’re confident justice will be served.”
Davis’s lawyers, with the right-wing legal firm Liberty Counsel, stated they plan to keep on fighting on her behalf, arguing that she is protected from liability by “sovereign immunity” because she was acting, in her role as clerk, on behalf of the state.
Liberty Counsel has further argued that, given Kentucky’s history of providing accommodations to clerks, the refusal of former Gov. Steve Beshear to accommodate Davis violated her right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.
Davis’ request that her name be removed from any licenses issued by the clerk’s office was eventually granted after former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, issued an executive order in late 2015 removing all county clerks’ names from marriage licenses in the state, handing her a moral and legal victory.
Both the Republican-controlled state senate and the Democratic-controlled House soon followed suit, passing a law that enshrined Bevin’s executive order into law.
Liberty Counsel has also raised the possibility that any future judgments finding Davis liable could set up an appeal that brings the issue of religious exemptions for opponents of same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Kim Davis is entitled to protection to an accommodation based on her sincere religious belief,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement. “This case raises serious First Amendment free exercise of religion claims and has a high potential of reaching the Supreme Court.”