The job of Rowan County clerk is not one you take seeking celebrity. It mostly involves shuffling paper: maintaining voter registration rolls, overseeing elections, issuing license plates, filing reports on the goings-on in the small northeastern Kentucky county of roughly 23,000. The elections for the position are uneventful and remarkably civil — the local Morehead News published just one story about the most recent campaign, remarking on how unusual it was for the job to be contested.
Kim Davis, 49, would have known that when she was narrowly voted into office last November. Her mother had been county clerk for nearly 40 years before her, and for 26 of them Davis had worked under her as deputy. She wasn’t looking to shake things up, she told the Morehead News at the time. She just wanted to do a good job.
“My words can never express the appreciation,” she said of the constituents who voted for her, “but I promise to each and every one that I will be the very best working clerk that I can be and will be a good steward of their tax dollars and follow the statutes of this office to the letter.”
But Davis’s defiance of a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples has put her in an unbidden spotlight and at odds with that Election Day promise. She faces official misconduct charges and a hearing to determine whether she is in contempt of court.
And she’s become the target of scrutiny across the nation, which has alternately hailed her as a hero standing up for principle and criticized her as a hypocrite out of step with society and the law. Revelations of Davis’s own marital history (four marriages to three different men) have further fueled criticism of the small-town clerk.
Since June, when the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples have a constitutional right to wed, Davis has asked to be excused from issuing marriage licenses to anyone on the grounds that licensing a same-sex marriage would violate her religious beliefs.
In doing so, the longtime public servant has evoked the anger of couples who say it’s their right to be married in their home county by the clerk whose salary comes from their tax dollars.
“I pay your salary,” David Moore insisted Tuesday, leaning over Davis’s desk after she refused to issue a license to him and his partner, David Ermold. “I pay you to discriminate against me right now, that’s what I’m paying for.”
“Do your job,” someone else yelled. As the argument became more heated, Davis walked back into her office and closed the door.
Davis isn’t the only clerk to reject the Supreme Court’s ruling, but she is certainly the most notorious. That’s in part because of a now viral video that Moore and Ermold filmed in July during their first attempt to obtain a marriage license in Rowan County.
But Davis is also the most outspoken of the holdout clerks — she has issued a statement explaining her stance on the issue and is being represented by the public interest law firm Liberty Counsel, which provides free legal assistance for “advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life and the family,” according to its Web site. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called the firm an “anti-LGBT hate group.”
An Apostolic Christian, Davis wrote in her statement that her refusal to license a gay marriage is “a Heaven or Hell decision.”
“I want to continue to perform my duties, but I also am requesting what our Founders envisioned — that conscience and religious freedom would be protected,” she continued. “That is all I am asking. I never sought to be in this position, and I would much rather not have been placed in this position.”
Davis has lived her whole life in Rowan County, a rural Appalachian region east of Lexington. Ninety-five percent of the county is white, according to census data, and nearly 30 percent live below the poverty line. Though most of the county’s inhabitants don’t claim religious affiliation, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives, those who do are mostly evangelical Christians.
The Apostolic Church, where Davis is a member, believes in “high moral boundaries,” according to University of Pennsylvania religious historian Anthea Butler. “No drinking or smoking, modest dress; many have prohibitions on cutting their hair.”
“They are literal interpreters of the Bible” and view it as the highest authority, Butler told the University of California Web site Religion Dispatches.
Davis, who dresses in long skirts and wears her waist-length hair down behind her back, is deeply involved in the church, according to legal documents. She attends weekly services and leads a Bible study for women at a local jail.
She wrote in her statement that she “went to church” to fulfill the dying wish of her mother-in-law.
“There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ,” she wrote. “I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God. I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage.”
The phrase “I am not perfect,” may be an oblique acknowledgement of a fact seized on by many of Davis’s critics: According to records obtained by The Washington Post, Davis has been married four times to three different men. She has had three divorces over the past 21 years.
Liberty Counsel chairman Matthew Staver told US News and World Report that Davis’s marriage history isn’t relevant to the case.
“It’s something that happened in her past,” before her conversion to the Apostolic Church four years ago, he said. “… She was 180 degrees changed.”
Because she is an elected official, Davis, a Democrat, can’t be fired from the position for refusing to comply with the court order. If she is found guilty of misconduct, Davis could be imprisoned for up to a year, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. The state legislature can also vote to impeach her, the paper noted, though that seems unlikely since most Kentucky voters oppose same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, Davis has made it clear she has no plans to step down as clerk.
“It’s what I love to do,” she had told the Morehead News last fall, during the race for the clerk position. She touted her experience in the office, and the fact that her mother was previously clerk, as evidence she had “what it takes.”
“If I’m elected it will be a seamless transition with no break in services to our citizens,” she promised then. “Licenses, taxes, election-related activities and all of our other services cannot stop or slow down.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Rowan County Clerk issues licenses to drivers; the clerk, in fact, issues license plates. The post has been updated.
Higdon reported from Morehead, Ky.
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