Five months before the Supreme Court's landmark decision declaring same-sex marriage legal in all states, Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk in Kentucky who was jailed last month for defying a federal judge's order to issue same-sex marriage licenses, wrote to state lawmakers asking them to back legislation that would exempt her and other county clerks from having to grant anyone a marriage license.
Davis sent the letter to legislators about two weeks after she took office. In it, she sought support for "possible" legislation "that would give county clerks the option to exempt themselves" from issuing marriage licenses. She wanted clerks to have the option to not only refuse licenses to same-sex couples, but to refuse them to "all parties, as to not discriminate anyone."
Davis said the state legislature had already determined that clerks could be exempted from issuing fishing and hunting license, and she "was wanting to have the option, as a person who has deep moral convictions to choose not to discriminate any party, by applying for an exemption for the issuance of a marriage license."
"I can not ask my deputies to issue or be a party to 'the implementation of a contentious societal philosophy change' (per Florida clerk with same views) if I myself would not," the 49-year-old county clerk wrote to dozens of lawmakers. "I know the deadline is close for presentation of bills on the floor, but in light of the Supreme Court's decision to look at this in April, I feel it imparitive [sic] that we be ready to stand with our uncompromising convictions, holding strong to our morals."
Davis went on to say that a committee was formed by the "clerk's association" to address the "issue." A month later, Joann Schrader, the secretary for Republican state senator Albert Robinson, responded to Davis via email and said the senator agreed with her position. Davis was instructed to reach out to Dean Johnson, the Laurel County clerk, for guidance.
It's unknown what then transpired. Neither Johnson nor Davis responded to VICE News' request for comment.
The email Davis sent Robinson was obtained by VICE News along with a handful of other documents in response to an open records request filed with the Rowan County Attorney in Kentucky. The records provide the early insight into Davis's stance on same-sex marriage and reveal how she intended to respond to the Supreme Court's decision. One of Davis's letters turned over to VICE News was attached as an exhibit to a lawsuit filed against Davis last August.
VICE News sought a wide-range of documents pertaining to Davis, including emails and letters she sent referencing same-sex marriage, as well as any letters sent to her or that she sent to politicians after the controversy erupted. In a letter dated September 17, Cecil Watkins, the Rowan County attorney, said our request was too burdensome due to the volume of communications.
"There are thousands and thousands of e-mails sent here during the recent controversy," Watkins said, explaining why he didn't turn over all of the records. "At one point, as many as 3,000 a day were received. Approximately 6,000 remain un-opened, none have been sorted…. We are unable to search the body of the emails for content by topic on our government email system."
Watkins added that Rowan County also has boxes of mail for Davis containing hundreds or thousands of "items that remain unopened and for which no safe method of opening or disposal." He said these materials, which VICE News also sought, are too burdensome to send. But Watkins offered to allow VICE News to inspect portions of the records at the Rowan County Clerk's office. Watkins consulted with Davis on our records request for specific documents, such as possible letters to GOP presidential candidates Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush. Watkins said Davis assured him that "as far as she recalls," she did not write to them.
Still, the few emails and letters from earlier this year that were turned over foreshadow the coming drama.
In her January letter to lawmakers, Davis said she was concerned about an issue of "vital importance" regarding the "Kentucky County Clerk's Association and an upcoming Supreme Court decision." She said a 2004 amendment to Kentucky's Constitution defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
"As a constitutional officer elected by the people I personally feel the Commonwealth's Constitution should be upheld…. This should be an electoral issue not judicial," she wrote, adding in the cover sheet "I pray you will be able to help us concerning the issue at hand."
On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that states cannot prevent same-sex couples from marrying and had to recognize their unions. Kentucky's Democratic Governor Steven Beshear sent a letter to Davis and other county clerks that said the state would recognize same-sex marriages, and that same-sex couples are entitled to marriage licenses.
"Neither your oath [to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Kentucky] nor the Supreme Court dictates what you must believe," Beshear wrote. "But as elected officials, they do prescribe how we must act. Now that same-sex couples are entitled to the issuance of a marriage license, the Department of Libraries and Archives will be sending a gender neutral form to you today, along with instructions for its use."
Davis ignored the directive and refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. And so a couple of months after the high-court's decision, US District Court judge David Bunning ordered Davis to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Bunning issued a stay of his order while Davis appealed the ruling. But the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals denied her motion.
On September 3, Davis was held in contempt of court. Bunning, the son of retired Republican US Senator Jim Bunning, ordered her to be jailed until she complied. In a statement at the time, Davis, citing her religion, said, "It is not a light issue for me. It is a heaven or hell decision."
During her five-day stint in jail, Davis received about 10,000 letters, said Watkins, the Rowan County attorney. He explained that he could not turn over the letters to us because they are Davis's personal property and were not addressed to her office in Rowan County or the Rowan County Courthouse.
The same day Bunning held Davis in contempt, Kentucky State Senator C.B. Embry Jr., a Republican, emailed Davis. He said he and his colleagues would address the issue of religious objections to issuing same-sex marriage licenses when the legislature meets in January.
"I strongly favor putting off court action on this issue until the Kentucky General Assembly can meet in January and del [sic] with the issue of marriage licenses," Embry wrote.
A day earlier, State Representative Richard Heath, a Republican, sent a letter of support for Davis to the judge, a copy of which Heath also sent her. The lawmaker asked the judge to issue a stay of his order so that Heath and his colleagues "can settle this issue in January so that both sides can have what they want."
"That is the America [sic] way and right now Kim Davis is not receiving that fairness," Heath wrote on September 2.
She also received a letter of support from Republican State Representative Tim Moore, who told Davis he was "saddened beyond words at the ordeal you have been subjected to over the past several weeks."
"Had Governor Beshear simply changed the marriage license form to eliminate the requirement for County Clerks such as yourself to sign, all of this impasse would have been avoided," he wrote. "Many in the Legislature are eager to address this matter…. I am quite confident that if this governor does not act, the Legislature will make adjustments in the statutes as quickly as possible when our 2016 Session begins in January…. I appreciate your continuing determination to do your job while honoring your Christian faith. Our nation should never condemn you for demonstrating that level of moral fortitude and commitment."
Davis has since become a cause celebre in conservative circles for her defiant stance. She reportedly met with the Pope and has been showered with support from Huckabee and Cruz, both of whom led Davis out of jail.
Last month, Davis sued Beshear for violating her religious freedom. She claims the governor "took it upon himself… to set and announce new Kentucky marriage license policies and command county clerks to abide by such policies."
Lawyers representing the governor characterized Davis's complaint as "absurd, forlorn" and "obtuse."
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold