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How Kentucky's Divided Politics Created A Marriage Battlefield

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

The cauldron of Kentucky politics was dramatically exposed this week for the whole world to see.

The Bluegrass State produced plaintiffs and attorneys who were part of the Supreme Court case that led the legalization of same-sex marriage.  It's also the home to the county clerk jailed because she refuses to issue marriage license.

The most surprising thing for non-Kentuckians about the embattled county clerk might be the fact that she’s a Democrat.

But like bourbon and bluegrass, the Kentucky brand of Democrat is complex.

Davis, who’s an Apostolic Christian, has persistently asserted that her religious views should be accommodated so that she doesn’t have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

That’s not an unusual position for Kentucky Democrats.

The leaders in the state House, Senate and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway all say they would support legislation exempting clerks from signing off on marriage licenses -- so they don’t have to approve same-sex marriages if they don’t want to.

On Saturday, Davis was still in jail for refusing a federal court order to issue marriage licenses. Her last stand has been a critical dispute between conservatives and activists in the state, said Sam Marcosson, a law professor at the University of Louisville.

“It’s clashed in front of that courthouse, it’s clashed in the courtroom as the sides have fought over the rights of Kim Davis," Marcosson said.

He said Kentucky’s pitched emotions on marriage set the stage for Kim Davis’ last stand.

“It’s absolutely true that Kentucky has this sort of blend of cultures that allow it to have become basically the front line in this first wave of responses that has gotten all of the national attention," Marcosson said.

Kentuckians’ views on same-sex marriage have shifted somewhat in recent years. In 2004, voters approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage with 73 percent of the vote. According to a poll released earlier this year, just 53 percent of would-be voters disapprove of the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

But that’s still a majority, so the state’s elected officials skew socially conservative. That means on cultural issues, Kentucky Democrats look like Republicans, said Steve Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

"On economic issues they may not be especially conservative, but when you move into the social and cultural domain, they are very conservative," Voss said.

Beshear, who had defended the state’s same-sex marriage ban in court, ordered all county clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court ruling.

And that’s what Kim Davis just couldn’t take.

“There is a remedy to this. If the governor would do what he’s supposed to he could settle all this," Davis said on Tuesday, the day after the Supreme Court refused to stay the order requiring her to issue marriage licenses.

Davis wants Beshear to change the marriage license form so that clerks don’t have to sign them. Beshear has refused.

And Davis won’t step down.

“There are certainly conservative county clerks who are personally against the same-sex marriage decisions all over much of the country," Voss said. "You just needed to have one person who believed it strongly enough. She was willing to be thrust into the spotlight, criticized, threatened, put in jail."

Couples in Rowan County were able to get marriage licenses starting Friday,issued by the deputies in Davis' office.

U.S. District Judge David Bunning said Kim Davis will remain in jail until she complies with his order to issue marriage licenses.

She’s showing no sign that she will.

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