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Kentucky Governor to County Clerk: Start Issuing Marriage Licenses or Resign

Legislators and county clerks are calling for an electronic marriage license system, so those who take exception to the Supreme Court gay marriage ruling don't have to go against their religious beliefs.

by Liz Fields
Jul 10 2015, 5:25pm

Photo by Andrew Gombert/EPA

Following the Supreme Court's decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide last month, some Kentucky clerks who objected to the ruling based on religious grounds devised a canny work-around: They stopped issuing marriage licenses not only to gay couples but to anyone. That way they couldn't be accused of prejudice or discrimination.

Only, the state's governor isn't having it. This week, Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, gave one of his clerks in Casey County an ultimatum: either start issuing licenses again or hand in your letter of resignation.

In a statement following a meeting with Casey County clerk Casey Davis, Beshear said that ultimately courts and voters will "deal appropriately" with clerks who refused to fulfill their oaths, in which they swore to uphold the law and issue marriage licenses to any person who is qualified.

Beshear also said he wouldn't give in to calls from some lawmakers and about 60 clerks for a special legislative session to address their objections to gay marriage, saying that at an estimated $60,000 a day, the sessions would unnecessarily cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Any proposal about the process of issuing marriage licenses that meets the standards of the Supreme Court ruling should be carefully thought out and could be considered in the regular session in 2016," he wrote.

Following their meeting at the Capitol rotunda, Davis told reporters and some 50 supporters on the steps that the governor was "a very nice man," who "respectfully disagreed with my position." He also said he was keenly aware of the risks of defying the Supreme Court ruling and his oath, including the possibility of being sued or winding up in jail.

Related: Four Kentucky Couples Sue Clerk Who Refused to Issue Gay Marriage Licenses

Casey County Attorney Thomas Weddle Jr. had reportedly also spoken with Davis and told the clerk that while he had "the greatest respect" for his religious beliefs, "his religious convictions in this case do not comply with the law."

"I told [Davis] he would not win this case in court," Weddle told The Hill.

The meeting came the same week that video emerged of another Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, who has no established relationship with Casey Davis, refusing to provide a marriage license to a same-sex couple in Rowan County. David Moore, who has been with his partner David Ermold for more than 17 years, posted the video Monday to YouTube, where it has already been viewed more than 1.5 million times.

The pair are among four couples — two straight and two gay — who have joined together to sue Davis over her refusal to issue licenses. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kentucky, which brought the suit on behalf of the couples, argues that since the residents live, work, and pay taxes in Rowan County, they also have the right to obtain a marriage license there.

"Ms. Davis has the absolute right to believe whatever she wants about God, faith, and religion, but as a government official who swore an oath to uphold the law, she cannot pick and choose who she is going to serve, or which duties her office will perform based on her religious beliefs," Laura Landenwich, one of the attorneys in the lawsuit, said.

The backlash to the Supreme Court's decision last Friday in especially conservative states has caused some government clerks and workers to quit their jobs in objection and others, like Kim Davis and Casey Davis, to resist carrying out activities to which they take exception.

In Tennessee, three employees at the Decatur County Clerk's Office have resigned over their religious opposition to gay marriage. Decatur County Commissioner David Boroughs said the officers made "personal individual decision" but said he strongly supported them.

Meanwhile, resistance to the gay marriage ruling in Texas has been led by the state's attorney general, Ken Paxton, and Senator and Republican presidential contender Ted Cruz, who have been pushing government workers to defy the court's decision and prevent it from being upheld.

Related: Conservative Backlash Follows US Supreme Court's Same-Sex Marriage Decision

Some Kentucky lawmakers, including Republican Senator Albert Robinson, have backed the state's clerks in their calls for a special parliamentary session. He also brought up the possibility of establishing an online system to issue marriage licenses so that those workers who take exception to same-sex unions would not have to participate.

"This matter was established under God," Robinson said of marriage. "God first created one man and one woman to raise a family. He did not create two men or two women together."

But Beshear has stood firmly behind the letter he sent to all county clerks instructing them to immediately begin issuing licenses after the SCOTUS ruling.

"When [Casey Davis] was elected, he took a constitutional oath to uphold the United States Constitution," he wrote in his statement Thursday. "The Constitution now requires that governmental officials in Kentucky and elsewhere must recognize same-sex marriages as valid and allow them to take place."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields