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

Officials say Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis could face a year in prison for defying the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage last week.

by Liz Fields
Jul 3 2015, 4:30pm

Protesters waive a rainbow flag on the front lawn of the Rowan County Judicial Center, Tuesday, June 30, 2015, in Morehead, Ky. Photo by Timothy D. Easley/AP

Four Kentucky couples are taking a county clerk to federal court for refusing to issue them marriage licenses in the week since the US Supreme Court issued the decision that legalized gay marriage nationwide.

In a historic ruling last Friday, the US's highest court ruled that states could not refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. But since then, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has refused to do just that. To skirt the ruling, Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses to any couple — whatever their sexual orientation — so she couldn't be accused of discrimination.

Two of the couples she turned away, who are now part of the suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kentucky, are gay, while the other two are straight. Davis's office reportedly told the couples to go to another county to get their licenses, despite Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's ordering all state clerks to immediately comply with the SCOTUS ruling.

Activists argue the clerk's defiance is unconstitutional and violates the rights of the couples.

"When our laws are updated or changed, government officials have a duty and a responsibility to impartially administer those laws," ACLU of Kentucky Executive Director Michael Aldridge said in a statement announcing the class action suit.

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

Davis, who cites her Christian beliefs as her reason for not issuing licenses, said Tuesday she could not approve of gay marriage and would never issue a license to a same-sex couple, even as protesters assembled outside her office earlier in the week, waving a large rainbow flag.

"It's a deep-rooted conviction; my conscience won't allow me to do that," she said. "It goes against everything I hold dear, everything sacred in my life."

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 Davis, to resist carrying out activities to which they take exception.

"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.

In Tennessee on Thursday, three employees at the Decatur County Clerk's Office 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.

"I'm proud of them that their faith is so strong and well-rounded that they feel they can do that," Boroughs said.

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: Indiana's 'Religious Freedom' Law Takes Effect as LGBT Activists Call for Protection from Discrimination

Kentucky clerks have already been warned by the state's governor and other officials that they may be held criminally liable if they defy the ruling. Warren County Attorney Ann Milliken, president of the Kentucky County Attorneys Association, told The Associated Press that the clerks could be accused of official misconduct or be slapped with a misdemeanor charge, which could lead to a year in prison.

Some clerks who had initially resisted issuing licenses changed their tunes over the course of the week. But Davis has held steadfast and has not been swayed by the ACLU suit, which includes an immediate injunction ordering her to begin issuing marriage licenses and seeks punitive damages for the four couples.

Two plaintiffs in the suit, L. Aaron Skaggs and partner Barry Spartman, were told by a clerk, "Don't bother coming down here," when they sought to obtain a license Tuesday.

While Kentucky allows couples to seek marriage licenses in any county, the couples say since they live, work, and pay taxes in Rowan County, they also have the right to obtain a marriage license there.

"We have been citizens of Rowan County since the beginning of our relationship and love being members of this community," Skaggs said. "It only makes sense that we would want and should be granted our right to be recognized as a loving couple having freedom to marry here at home."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields