GRAYSON, Ky. — Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis entered the Carter County Detention Center under cover of night five days ago, in contempt of court over her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
On Tuesday, she emerged to a rally of more than 1,000 cheering Christians, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” pounding and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) pulling her to a microphone.
The gathering to support Davis — part block party, part Old Testament revival and part presidential campaign rally — clogged traffic in this small town and dominated cable news for much of Tuesday. Prominent social conservatives flocked to Grayson. The Republican Party’s candidate for governor mingled with the crowd, as did Huckabee’s rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
Davis’s fight gave the presidential contenders a clear chance to prove their conservative mettle in a crowded primary field. They anointed Davis a hero of religious liberty, casting her defiance of a Supreme Court ruling as an expression of faith and a constitutional right. Huckabee compared the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges this past June with the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which bolstered slave-holders’ rights; Cruz said that Kentucky was defiling a tradition that allowed religious people to make faith-based decisions to opt out of certain tasks.
“You know, if I’d have suggested six months ago that Christians were going to be locked in jail for following their faith, that would have been roundly dismissed in the media as farcical and impossible,” Cruz said, pointing to the crowd.
Huckabee described his meeting with Davis, saying he’d called her “braver than any pastor I’ve ever known” and pledging to serve jail time in her stead if it came to that. Cruz said his talk with Davis was similar.
Davis was ordered to jail as a result of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of several same-sex couples. In an e-mail to The Washington Post, an attorney for the ACLU said the organization had achieved what it set out to do.
“The goal was to get Ms. Davis to issue licenses, and to stop imposing her religious beliefs on the citizens she was elected to serve,” attorney Dan J. Canon wrote. “That goal has been achieved, for now.”
Less clear was whether Davis, an Apostolic Christian who opposes same-sex marriage, would continue to refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples — or what the legal consequences might be.
“Thank you all so much,” Davis said through tears after her release. “I love you all so very much! I just want to give God the glory. His people have rallied, and you are a strong people.”
In a short news conference, Davis’s attorney, Mat Staver, told reporters that her release had settled nothing.
“Kim Davis cannot, will not violate her conscience,” said Staver, founder of the conservative Liberty Counsel. Asked if that meant she would refuse to issue licenses, he promised that people would “find out in the near future,” perhaps the next day.
“She loves God, she loves people, she loves her work, and she will not betray any of those three,” Staver said. Davis silently joined Staver as he spoke to the media, but when asked whether spending five days in custody was “worth it,” she smiled and nodded: Yes.
One day after Davis was jailed, her deputies began issuing the documents in her absence. As a condition of her release Tuesday, U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning ordered Davis not to interfere with the issuing of marriage licenses by her office.
Five of the six clerks who work under Davis swore under oath last week that they could comply with the court’s order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In a status report filed to Bunning’s court Tuesday, the couples who had filed suit against Davis after she first denied them marriage licenses said they were able to obtain them. In Tuesday’s two-page order, Bunning said he was satisfied that the county clerk’s office is now complying with the court’s ruling.
He also ordered that Davis “shall not interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, with the efforts of her deputy clerks to issue marriage licenses to all legally eligible couples” in Rowan County. If she does interfere, Bunning wrote, the court will consider “appropriate sanctions.”
That news did not rattle the crowd outside the detention center. Some had gathered as early as 8 a.m. and driven from as far away as Texas and New York. Some churches packed buses with congregants, while others distributed bottled water to fight against the punishing summer sun. One local who was charging $10 for parking on his lawn threw in free fans; some Davis supporters made use of a cooling center.
But most of them grinned through all of it. They waved signs with Bible verses referencing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Old Testament’s prohibition on the “abomination” of same-sex intercourse. Some had filled the same lawn for an impromptu Saturday rally to support Davis, some had even driven to Bunning’s home for a Labor Day protest, and at least one had left flowers and a letter of support to Davis at her actual county office, 30 miles away. All said that Bunning, and the U.S. Supreme Court, had violated natural law — and that Davis had simply refused to go along with it.
“It says in that Bible that every knee shall bow,” said Judy Edens, 50, who’d driven from Mount Sterling, Ky. “What are these men going to do that think it’s okay to sleep with another man, or a woman with another woman? When God returns, what are they going to say? Deep down inside, Kim Davis has an eternal soul, and ain’t no earthly judge going to have a say about what happens to that.”
Many at the rally expressed concern that President Obama and the Supreme Court had betrayed them. More than a few asked why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, both Kentucky Republicans, had not done more for Davis. Janet Miller, 65, said that she had supported Donald Trump until his statement that Davis should obey the ruling that affirmed the right to same-sex marriage. Davis’s case was a make-or-break issue for her.
“If this goes through — if the Supreme Court continues to override society and what the majority thinks — then all you’ve got left is tyrannical authority,” said Leonard Stone, 65, a Christian minister from Wolf County, Ky. “She should be released. That’s simple. The Supreme Court doesn’t have the right to write laws. She’s in there unconstitutionally.“
The LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign also weighed in on the case, stating that Davis has “no legal basis” to refuse to comply with the Obergefell decision.
The licenses issued Friday were altered to remove Davis’s name. They now say they are issued in the office of “Rowan County, Rowan County County Clerk.” But Staver, Davis’s attorney, argued that without Davis’s approval, the licenses are invalid.
The five clerks who complied with the court’s order have been ordered to file status reports to the court every 14 days.
Earlier Tuesday, Davis’s attorneys filed a document petitioning a U.S. circuit court to overrule Bunning’s contempt order. Davis has argued that she is exercising her religious freedom. She has also sought a “remedy” from state officials that would exempt her from the mandate that all Kentucky county clerks issue marriage licenses in the state.
The televised rally was Huckabee’s, not Cruz’s. The Texas senator worked through the crowd as Huckabee announced Davis’s liberation. At one point, an aide to Huckabee prevented Cruz from addressing the cameras that were present for the news conference. The senator carried out his own interviews in a field that had been conquered by TV trucks.
“I thanked her for standing up and speaking the truth with a smile,” Cruz said. “I told her that she had inspired millions of people around the country and around the world. I told her that she was being lifted up in prayer by believers all over the world. I told her, ‘You may not have realized that the jail cell was that crowded, but you were not alone in there.’ ”
Phillip reported from Washington. Sarah Larimer in Washington contributed to this report.