A raucous scene unfolded at the county courthouse here Tuesday as a local clerk defied a judge’s order to start issuing marriage licenses, opening a new front in the still-simmering battle over same-sex marriage.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’s refusal prompted immediate calls for legal sanctions. In response, U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning set a hearing for 11 a.m. Thursday to decide whether Davis should be held in contempt, a finding that could carry fines or jail time.

The standoff is the latest sign of resentment bubbling in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. The decision has touched off a national debate over how to balance the rights of gays with the free exercise of faith, and it has injected the issue of religious liberties into the Republican presidential primary race.

On Tuesday, one GOP candidate, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), called on Davis to “comply with the law or resign.”

“The rule of law is the rule of law,” the senator told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. While Graham “appreciates her conviction” and “supports traditional marriage” himself, he said, Davis “has accepted a job where she has to apply the law to everyone.”

Surrounded by the media, David Moore, center, and his partner David Ermold attempt to apply for a marriage license at the Rowan County Courthouse in Morehead, Ky., on Tuesday. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

Even before the doors opened early Tuesday, dozens of inflamed activists from both sides gathered outside the Rowan County Courthouse, where Davis has served as chief clerk since January. When several same-sex couples tried unsuccessfully to obtain marriage licenses, Davis emerged from a back office to say that no licenses would be issued.

“Under whose authority?” someone demanded.

“Under God’s authority,” Davis shot back.

Amid competing chants of “Do your job!” and “Praise the Lord!,” Davis then asked the rejected applicants to go home.

A rare case of resistance

Legal experts predicted some acts of defiance after the same-sex-marriage ruling in June, citing backlash after other Supreme Court decisions, including the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationally and the 1954 ruling to desegregate public schools. But gay rights advocates played down the significance of the ruckus in Rowan County, saying Davis has drawn national attention precisely because her defiance is so unusual.

“Our opponents predicted there would be riots in the streets and people of faith would be protesting up and down the country. . . . And it just hasn’t happened at all,” said Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, a group that fought for same-sex marriage.

“If this is the big backlash that our opponents are predicting,” he said, “it sure ain’t much.”

In a statement posted on the Web site of Liberty Counsel, the Christian legal organization representing her, Davis said it was not “a gay or lesbian issue” that led her to take her stand but rather her conscience.

“To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience,” she wrote. “It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision.”

In their motion asking a judge to hold Davis in contempt, attorneys for four same-sex couples who were turned away by Davis earlier this summer did not request that she receive jail time, though that is an option Bunning may consider. Instead, they sought “financial penalties sufficiently serious and increasingly onerous to compel Davis’ immediate compliance without further delay.”

One of the plaintiffs, April Miller, demurred when asked if she would like to see Davis put behind bars.

“I don’t want to see anything but a marriage license,” Miller said.

Davis is not the only county clerk who has stopped issuing licenses in the wake of the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling. Officials in a dozen counties in Alabama have also stopped taking applications, as have two others in Kentucky. But compliance elsewhere has been widespread, even in the most devout parts of the Bible Belt, according to gay rights groups that have been tracking policies county by county.

Davis stopped issuing marriage licenses to all couples, gay or straight, shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision in June. An Apostolic Christian, she has asked for special accommodations so she does not have to put her name on a marriage license for two people of the same sex, which she said would violate her faith.

Elected county clerk in November, the 49-year-old Democrat took over the position from her mother, who had served for more than two decades. Before November, Davis was deputy clerk.

Public records show that Davis has had a complicated relationship with the institution of marriage in her personal life, divorcing three times, most recently in 2008. Since then, Davis said in her statement, she has found religion, responding to “a message of grace and forgiveness” that prompted her to surrender “my life to Jesus Christ.”

She now goes to church multiple times a week, according to court filings, attends a weekly Bible study and leads a separate weekly session with women at a local jail.

“Those marriages, however many there were, actually took place before she was born again, before she found Christ,” said Randy Smith, the pastor of a local evangelical congregation and a leader of the protests. “That’s just like, let’s take a homosexual person. Maybe tomorrow they go to a church service, they get saved, and they turn from homosexuality. It’s forgiven. The same forgiveness” applies to Davis, he said.

Origins of the standoff

The legal standoff stems from a lawsuit filed by four gay couples to whom Davis denied marriage licenses. Though the case remains unresolved, a court ordered Davis to start issuing licenses Tuesday. As a last-ditch measure, she asked the Supreme Court to stay that order while the case proceeds on appeal, but the high court turned her down late Monday.

Though protesters had gathered for weeks outside the courthouse, that decision seemed to propel the acrimony into high gear. About 100 people descended early Tuesday on the courthouse lawn, with Davis’s supporters gathered on one side of the modest brick building and gay rights protesters huddled on the other.

As Smith led his flock in prayer, supporters of same-sex marriage cheered and consoled the handful of gay couples who had turned up in hopes of obtaining a license. Among them were Tim and Mike Long, who had come to the courthouse for the first time since obtaining a name change seven years ago.

Both were visibly shaken by the experience of being turned away.

“I just thought it would happen today,” Mike Long said. “I really thought today would be it, would be the day.”

Rowan County Sheriff Matt Sparks told the couples there was nothing he could do, saying the matter was in the hands of the courts.

Davis “will likely be found in contempt,” the sheriff said, “as we know.”

Higdon is a freelance writer. Larimer and Somashekhar reported from Washington. Alice Crites contributed from Washington to this report.