In June 2015, the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, established a nationwide constitutional right to same-sex marriage. A new case from Kentucky, Davis v. Miller, was the Court’s first opportunity to consider whether government officials may refuse to comply with the Obergefelldecision on religious grounds.
The new case arose from the Rowan County Clerk’s office. Kim Davis, the elected clerk who administers marriage licenses for the county, has refused to issue any marriage licenses since Obergefell came down. She is an Apostolic Christian who says that she has a sincere religious objection to same-sex marriage. Other clerks in the state have expressed concern, but Davis is the only one turning away eligible couples. Two gay couples and two straight couples have since sued her, arguing that her duties as an elected official required her to act, despite her personal religious beliefs.
Supreme Court Ruling
A federal judge then ordered her to issue the licenses in compliance with the recent Supreme Court ruling, rejecting Davis’s argument that she should be excused from the obligation given her religious beliefs. The following week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
Davis immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, stating that her Apostolic Christian faith forbade her to affix her name to a document endorsing the view that the marriages of gay men and lesbians were authentic.
“This searing act of validation would forever echo in her conscience,” her lawyers told the court. “Ms. Davis should not have to choose between her sincerely held religious beliefs and her livelihood…particularly when same-sex couples can obtain licenses in other counties.”
On August 31, 2015, in its first involvement in a series of legal battles that have erupted since gay couples won the right to marry, the Supreme Court, without comment, turned down Davis’s request to be excused from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Same-Sex Couples Denied Marriage Licenses
The following morning, at least three same-sex couples visited Davis’s office to seek licenses and were again turned away. Davis stated she was acting “under God’s authority.”
The ACLU of Kentucky filed a motion in federal court the following day, asking the judge to hold Davis in contempt of court for failing to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. The attorneys asked for “financial penalties sufficiently serious and increasingly onerous to compel Davis’ immediate compliance without further delay.” In response, the judge ordered Davis to appear in court Thursday concerning the contempt motion. The judge has the discretion to impose a range of sanctions, including incarceration.
The Davis v. Miller case suggests that there will be continuing pressure on courts to balance the constitutional rights of gay couples to marry with the rights of public officials and others who say condoning same-sex marriage violates their religious beliefs.