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Rowan County Marriage License Saga Appears To Reach a Conclusion

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It was a bit of madhouse Monday in the Rowan County Clerk's Office.

Reporters crowded in to see if the defiant clerk Kim Davis would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. At times, protesters shouted.

But it appears an armistice of sorts has been declared in the Rowan County marriage license battle.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage in June, Davis has said she won’t issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because it goes against her religious beliefs. She defied a federal judge's order and was put in jail after she continued to refuse to hand out the licenses.

Her deputy clerks issued the forms last week when Davis was in jail.

Back at work Monday morning, Davis said she wouldn’t get in the way of her deputy clerks, but she would strip her name from the licenses.

"Any unauthorized license that they issue will not have my name, my title or my authority on it. Instead, the license will state that they are issued pursuant to a federal court order," she said.

The test came when a lesbian couple from nearby Lexington stopped in to get a license.

Shannon and Carmen Wampler-Collins were greeted by deputy county clerk Brian Mason. It took just a few minutes, but soon they had their license in hand.

The form did not have Davis’ title and name. Shannon Wampler-Collins said it was ridiculous Davis changed the form.

"You know no one is asking her, nor do we seek her blessing," Shannon Wampler-Collins said. "It’s just a legal document certifying that we meet the requirements, and I think it’s a little ridiculous that she needed to go to that length. But at the same time, I’m very happy that it’s making it possible for people to get licensed here."

U.S. District Court Judge David Bunning let Davis out of jail after the deputy clerks started granting licenses. He said she’d be held in contempt again if she interfered.

That hasn’t stopped Davis and her attorneys from complaining. They say without the clerk’s name and because she didn’t authorize them, the licenses issued in the last week are invalid.

Robin Wilson, a law professor for the University of Illinois, disagreed.

Wilson said the licenses are valid because Kentucky’s marriage laws already authorize deputy county clerks to issue marriage licenses.

"The code expressly contemplates deputy clerks issuing these things. So I doubt that she could say 'no deputies can issue.' And Judge Bunning just told her that’s going to be contempt of court, so I think that question’s resolved," Wilson said.

Other legal experts say the religious freedom arguments against issuing marriage licenses don’t hold any weight.

Although Davis isn’t issuing licenses herself, the issue is resolved as long as couples can get the documents in Rowan County, said Carl Tobias, a law professor for the University of Richmond.

"Religious objections are accommodated at least for the head of the office and maybe even other deputy clerks, but some deputy clerk is going to have to issue licenses from that office so people who want to get married have their rights vindicated," he said.

There’s mounting pressure on the General Assembly to change the state’s marriage laws so that county clerks don’t have to sign marriage licenses.

The lawsuit against Davis is ongoing. She has repeatedly asked outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear to call a special legislative session so new laws can be enacted. But he’s refused so far, and the legislature doesn’t meet again until January.

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