At the end of June, as the Supreme Court struck down gay marriage bans across the United States, opponents promised a national backlash and widespread resistance to the ruling. Two months later, it is surely some measure of the national mood that, of all the clerks of all the counties of all 50 US states – the men and women responsible for issuing marriage licences – just one remains in the headlines for her refusal to heed the court’s decision.
This weekend, Kim Davis of Rowan County, Kentucky is behind bars, after she defied a federal court order to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples. Davis cited “God’s law” as she turned the couples away, telling them that they would be welcome to drive to another nearby county to obtain a licence, but that her conscience did not permit her to issue them one in the county where they lived and worked and hoped to be wed.
David Moore and David Ermold, partners for 17 years, were turned away by Davis on four separate occasions, one of which they recorded and uploaded to YouTube, a clip that has since been viewed several million times. The video drew particular attention to Davis, who is reportedly one of three of Kentucky’s 120 county clerks who claim that their religious convictions prevent them from recognising same-sex unions.
Davis, 49, ran for the role as a Democrat and was elected last year, even as the same-sex marriage case, known as Obergefell v Hodges, worked its way towards the Supreme Court. “I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of scripture and of Jesus himself regarding marriage,” she said in a statement. “To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience.”
A number of couples sued Davis, hoping she would receive a fine and a reprimand. Instead, she was found in contempt of court, and last Thursday she was jailed for what is expected to be at least a week. In her absence, her deputies issued the county’s first marriage licences to same-sex couples on Friday. As an elected official, Davis cannot simply be sacked. And despite her incarceration, her lawyer Mat Staver – the founder of a Christian, anti-gay law firm called Liberty Counsel – insisted she would not resign her post.
Her situation has become the issue of the week on the presidential campaign trail, with Democrat front-runner Hillary Clinton tweeting: “Marriage equality is the law of the land. Officials should be held to their duty to uphold the law – end of story.” Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a contender for the Republican nomination, hedged his bets by suggesting that “there ought to be big enough space for [Davis] to act on her conscience and... for a gay couple to be married.”
Some of Mr Bush’s rivals, seizing the opportunity to rally the Republican base, were swift to support Davis, with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee citing her imprisonment as evidence of the “criminalisation of Christianity”, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz decrying the judge’s decision as the moment when “judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny”. Senator Cruz also urged “every believer, every Constitutionalist, every lover of liberty to stand with Kim Davis”.
Some gay-rights supporters doubtless experienced a hint of schadenfreude upon hearing the news, but activists have also expressed concern that her punishment will turn Davis into a heroine for the homophobic. If the Right is searching for a champion of “traditional” marriage, however, then Davis may not be an entirely suitable candidate. As it turns out, she reveres marriage between a man and a woman so sincerely that she has done it four times.
She married her first husband in 1984 but divorced him a decade later to marry Joe Davis. In 2007, she divorced Mr Davis to marry Thomas McIntyre, only to divorce a third time and remarry Mr Davis in 2009. As US News & World Report explained: “She gave birth to twins five months after divorcing her first husband. They were fathered by her third husband but adopted by her second.” Four years ago, Davis says, she “surrendered” herself to her religion, which presumably is how Mr Staver can claim that her tangled marital history is “not relevant to the issue at hand”.
As the kerfuffle unfolded in Kentucky, in the neighbouring state of Tennessee another public official – a county judge, no less – also decided to stage a personal protest against same-sex marriage. Hamilton County Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton denied “traditional” married couple Thomas and Pamela Bumgardner a divorce, saying the Obergefell v Hodges ruling shows that the Supreme Court considers “Tennesseans [to be] incompetent to define and address such keystone/central institutions such as marriage, and, thereby, at minimum, contested divorces.”
The Supreme Court’s decision, a petulant Atherton wrote, means only the Supreme Court can now arbitrate “what is not a marriage, or better stated, when a marriage is no longer a marriage”. Robbed of the legal means to prevent same-sex marriage, anti-gay officials have instead resorted to obstructionism and childish stunts. As a result, in spite of their purported “irreconcilable differences”, poor Mr and Mrs Bumgardner will have to remain hitched indefinitely. Which apparently was never a problem for Davis. Marriage equality, indeed.
Rupert Cornwell is away