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Reluctantly, Rowan Clerk's Office To Resume Issuing Marriage Licenses Friday

Protesters outside the Rowan County Courthouse.
Protesters outside the Rowan County Courthouse.

With Clerk Kim Davis locked away in the Carter County Detention Center for continuing to defy a federal court's order, a tenuous resolution has arrived in the Rowan County marriage license episode.

“We expect that all the citizens of Rowan County will be able to go and get their licenses starting [Friday] just as normal,” said Dan Canon, an attorney representing couples who sued Davis and the county over her refusal to issue marriage licenses.

Citing her religious beliefs, Davis stopped issuing marriage licenses in June, after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. She will remain in custody until she complies with U.S. District Judge David Bunning’s order to resume issuing licenses or resigns from her position. Bunning said during a hearing in Ashland on Thursday that Davis would remain in jail for at least a week while he evaluates how the clerk’s office operates in her absence.

Five out of six deputy clerks told Bunning they would comply with his order and issue marriage licenses to all couples. Nathan Davis, the son of Kim Davis, was the sole deputy clerk who indicated in court he would not issue licenses.

Bunning repeatedly warned Nathan Davis to not get in the way of the marriage license process during the contempt hearing Thursday.

"I want to ensure that the orders of the court are complied with," Bunning said.

Jonathan Christman, an attorney with nonprofit religious freedom law firm Liberty Counsel, which is representing Davis, asked during the hearing whether marriage licenses would be valid without her consent.

“If she instructs the deputies to not comply with the order, how is that different?” Christman asked the judge. “The authorization comes exclusively from the county clerk."

Canon said because deputy clerks normally sign off on marriage licenses anyway, there isn’t a problem.

“Licenses issued by the deputy clerks from this point forward will be just as valid as licenses were prior to June 26 that were issued by these deputy clerks. It should be no different at all,” Canon said after the hearing.

If the deputy clerks issue marriage licenses today, however, they will do so reluctantly.

Deputy Clerk Melissa Thompson, who started working in the clerk’s office 13 years ago, told the judge she would comply with his order, although grudgingly.

“Yes your honor, I don’t really want to but I will,” Thompson said, adding that she is a preacher’s daughter. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

Deputy Clerk Brian Mason also said he would comply, but he said he feared being targeted for helping bring an end to Davis’ protest. Deputy Clerk Kristie Plank said she couldn’t afford to be put in jail while raising her 11-year-old daughter.

During a break in the hearing, Davis’ husband said his wife wouldn’t comply with the judge's order because of her religious convictions and would stay in jail rather than back down or resign.

Liberty Counsel Chair Mat Staver said his team is working to get Davis out of jail. He said he expects an “intervention from one source or another.”

“Certainly I think the legislature is looking at this very closely and will be monitoring this and doing something when they come back in session,” Staver said.

Davis and her defense team have asked Gov. Steve Beshear to call a special session for the legislature to consider a law exempting county clerks from the requirement to sign off on marriage licenses. Beshear has refused repeatedly, including again on Thursday. The next opportunity to consider a bill is January.

In the meantime, Davis’ attorneys said they would keep fighting the lawsuit from four couples, which seeks monetary damages. It could be months before Bunning rules on that matter. Staver said “it’s probably true” that Bunning won’t rule in favor of them.

“But that’s why God invented appellate courts,” he said.

In his closing remarks at the hearing Thursday, Bunning noted that emotions were running high -- a nod to the continuing protests from both sides outside the courthouse.

"I hope that everyone will be civil," Bunning said.

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