MOREHEAD, Ky. — Cheers and a few boos erupted from the lobby of the Rowan County Courthouse Monday as a gay couple successfully obtained a marriage license just before 11 a.m. — putting an end to days of speculation about whether clerk Kim Davis would block the licenses.
Shannon and Carmen Wampler-Collins quietly filled out forms as supporters of Davis, the clerk who was jailed over her refusal to issue marriage licenses, jeered at them about the “sin” of homosexuality.
The protesters were drowned out when deputy clerk Brian Mason handed the couple their completed paperwork, with gay rights supporters shouting, “Thank you, Brian!”
The tense scene unfolded before scores of reporters, as Davis stayed quietly in a back office, the shades drawn closed. Until Monday, it had been unclear whether Davis would allow the marriage licenses to be issued when she returned to work after five nights in jail and several days off, despite an order from a federal judge that she not interfere with her deputies doing the task.
But earlier in the day, she said in a news conference that she would not stand in the way of her deputies adhering to the court order.
“I’m here before you this morning with a seemingly impossible choice that I do not wish on any of my fellow Americans,” Davis said through tears, minutes before her office was scheduled to open at 8 a.m. “My conscience or my freedom. My conscience or my ability to serve the people that I love. Obey God or a directive that forces me to disobey God, even when there are reasonable accommodations available.”
Still, questions remained Monday about whether Davis is, in fact, following the condition. The marriage certificates issued do not bear her name or title, but rather say that they are being issued pursuant to a federal court order. In addition, “Rowan County” is struck out on the form and replaced with the name of the city, Morehead.
Samuel A. Marcosson, a law professor at the University of Louisville, said there is “no question” that the marriage licenses are valid. State law allows deputy clerks to carry out all the duties of chief clerks, he said, and as long as the state acknowledges the union then it is a valid marriage.
Attorney General Jack Conway, Gov. Steve Beshear and Rowan County Attorney Cecil B. Watkins — all Democrats — have said previous iterations of the marriage licenses were valid. And of the dozen marriages licensed since the courthouse resumed issuing them earlier this month, at least three have already been made official by the state, Mason said.
Davis has been the most visible example of defiance against the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
A federal judge found Davis in contempt for refusing to follow a court order to begin issuing marriage licenses on Sept. 1 to gay couples. Davis was jailed but released on the condition that she allow others to issue the licenses in her office.
Davis has asked that the governor and legislature devise a solution that would permit her to keep her job without violating her faith, such as removing the clerk’s name and title from marriage certificates.
North Carolina and Utah have passed protections for county officials who do not want to issue marriage licenses in their names to gay couples, and more states may follow suit.
The courthouse was mobbed with demonstrators, particularly supporters of Davis, who milled inside and outside the front lobby. Elizabeth Johnston, 40, of Zanesville, Ohio, said she came to Rowan County to implore Davis not to issue any licenses today.
“We want Kim to be our Rosa Parks,” she said.
Asked if she would be disappointed if Davis allows her deputies to issue licenses, she responded that it would.
“That would be compromise,” she said.
Gay rights supporters took a deliberately low profile on Monday, with leaders instructing activists not to turn their presence into a full-blown protest. After receiving her marriage certificate, Shannon Wampler-Collins downplayed the spectacle and lamented Davis’s incarceration.
“I hated to see her in jail,” she said. “All we ever wanted was everyone in Rowan County who wanted to to get married.”
One group that had been expected was mostly absent: The Oathkeepers, a vigilante group that had offered to provide armed protection for Davis to prevent her from being returned to jail.
Davis reportedly rejected the group’s request. However, some members turned up, without visible arms.
Over the weekend, a group that supports same-sex marriage erected a billboard just outside of Morehead that said, “Dear Kim Davis, the fact that you can’t sell your daughter for three goats and a cow means we’ve already redefined marriage” — an apparent reference to biblical verses that permit the selling of women.
Somashekhar reported from Washington. Staff writer Justin Wm. Moyer contributed to this report.