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Republican Lawmakers Propose Exempting County Clerks From Issuing Marriage Licenses

Frankfort, Kentucky - State Capitol Building
Henryk Sadura
Frankfort, Kentucky - State Capitol Building

Two Republican lawmakers on Wednesday proposed a law exempting county clerks from liability if they refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Since the Supreme Court lifted bans on same-sex marriage through the U.S., a few Kentucky county clerks have refused to issue marriage licenses, citing their religious beliefs. The bill would also protect county clerks from liability for taking such a stance.

In Kentucky, it’s a Class A misdemeanor for elected officials to refuse to perform the duties of their office.

The bill, pre-filed for the 2016 legislative session, would also add a section to Kentucky’s marriage code seeking to strengthen protections for ministers and churches from liability for refusing same-sex couples on religious grounds.

Rep. Stan Lee, of Lexington, and Rep. David Meade, of Stanford, announced in a statement that they are sponsoring the legislation to address growing concerns among ministers and clerks in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

“Their fears are well founded, as the ACLU lawsuits are already flying,” Lee said in the statement. “This proposal simply seeks to further protect the religious freedoms guaranteed by the 1st Amendment.”

Four Rowan County couples, represented by the ACLU of Kentucky, are suing Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis for refusing to issue marriage licenses to them.

Davis stopped issuing marriage licenses after the Supreme Court ruling, saying that her religious convictions prevented her from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Davis’ defense attorney in the suit, Jonathan Christman, said on Monday that Davis is already protected by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause as well as the state and nation’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Meade said that government officials shouldn’t have to give up their religious freedom when they take office.

“If we truly believe in the 1st Amendment right to freedom of religion, then shouldn’t our clergy, as well as our county clerks, be entitled to this added protection?” Meade said.

Rep. Addia Wuchner, a Florence Republican, recently filed a similar bill that would make sure churches, judges, county judge-executives and magistrates don't have to perform same-sex marriages if they don't want to. That bill does not exempt county clerks.

The bill was filed in advance of the 2016 General Assembly, which begins in January.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.