MOREHEAD, Ky. — A raucous scene unfolded at the county courthouse here Tuesday as a clerk defied a judge’s order to start issuing marriage licenses, citing her religious objections to same-sex marriage.
U.S. District Judge David Bunning has set a hearing for 11 a.m. Thursday to determine whether to hold Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in contempt, a charge that could carry with it a fine or jail time.
Davis’s decision came on a day of heated protests here. Dozens of supporters — and critics — of the county’s elected clerk gathered outside the courthouse, and at times inside the lobby, as gay couples tried, unsuccessfully, to get marriage licenses.
After one couple was rebuffed, Davis emerged from a back office to explain that she would not be issuing any licenses.
“Under whose authority?” someone demanded.
“Under God’s authority,” Davis said.
Amid competing chants of “Do your job!” and “Praise the Lord!” Davis then asked the rejected applicants to leave the courthouse.
The scene unfolded in northeast Kentucky the morning after the Supreme Court ruled against Davis’s request to be excused from issuing gay-marriage marriage licenses.
And it underscored the tense emotions and unresolved issues that remain after the high court declared earlier this year that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. The decision has set off a cascade of lawsuits over issues such as same-sex parenting and, in particular, how to balance this sweeping new right with the rights of officials and others who say their religion forbids them from condoning or endorsing gay unions.
The Kentucky conflict has become the marquee battle, as Davis, an Apostolic Christian, has asked for special accommodations so that she does not have to put her name on a marriage license between two people of the same sex, which she said would violate her faith.
In a statement posted on the Web site of the Liberty Counsel, the conservative legal organization representing her, Davis said in a statement that it was not “a gay or lesbian issue” but rather a matter of 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 couples who were turned down by Davis earlier this summer did not request jail time, though it is an option Bunning may consider; rather, the attorneys asked for “financial penalties sufficiently serious and increasingly onerous to compel Davis’ immediate compliance without further delay.”
April Miller, one of the plaintiffs, demurred earlier in the day in an interview when asked if she would like to see Davis put behind bars. “I don’t want to see anything but a marriage license,” she said.
Davis is not the only county clerk who has stopped issuing licenses because of same-sex marriage. Officials in a dozen counties in Alabama have also halted marriage licenses, gay and straight. Two clerks in Texas and two other clerks in Kentucky have taken a similar stand.
But the standoff here has gained the most attention, and pressure on Davis intensified after the Supreme Court on Monday decided not to grant her a reprieve.
Davis, 49, a Democrat, stopped issuing marriage licenses to all couples a short time after the Supreme Court’s landmark same-sex marriage decision in June. Davis was elected in November and took over the position in January from her mother, who served as clerk for more than two decades. Before that, Davis had served as deputy clerk.
In her statement, Davis said she found religion four years ago, after her mother-in-law died. She went to church, she said, and “heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ.”
The situation is putting pressure on political leaders in Kentucky, where Gov. Steve Beshear (D) has resisted calls to hold a special session of the state legislature to consider changes to state law that would allow accommodations for Davis and the two other defiant clerks.
Among the accommodations that Davis has said would be acceptable is a proposal to remove county clerks’ names from marriage licenses.
Tensions at the Rowan County courthouse began even before it opened Tuesday, as about 100 people descended on the courthouse. Davis’s supporters gathered on one side of the building, and protesters huddled on the other.
“We are children of God, and we very much disapprove of same-sex marriage, as it is an abomination,” Randy Smith, the pastor of a local evangelical congregation, said in an opening prayer before the courthouse opened. “However, we need to promote the love of God, as well. Emotions can run wild, and we need to love people.”
Smith then prayed for the county clerk, saying: “We love Kim Davis.”
Gay rights supporters gathered on the other side of the courthouse lawn, where David Ermold and David Moore waited.
“I’m expecting a license today,” Ermold said, before the courthouse opened.
As Ermold was speaking with reporters, a rendition of ”Amazing Grace” began from the anti-gay-marriage group just before 8 a.m. The group protesting in support of gay rights joined and sang as well.
Ermold and Moore have previously documented their efforts to secure a license in Rowan County, about an hour from Lexington. A video of a July attempt has more than 1,800,000 views on YouTube; another trip to the courthouse was recorded in mid-August.
On Tuesday, after Davis and her staff declined to issue licenses to several same-sex couples, Rowan County Sheriff Matt Sparks told them there was nothing he could do, saying the matter was in the hands of the federal courts.
“She will likely be found in contempt, as we know,” the sheriff said.
J. Freedom du Lac and Robert Barnes contributed to this report, which has been updated. Somashekhar and Larimer reported from Washington. A previous version incorrectly identified Sheriff Matt Sparks.