MOREHEAD, Ky. — Square in the middle of embattled Rowan County is this college town in the Appalachian foothills — home to Morehead State University, a population that swells by 10,000 with the start of each school year, and an active LGBT community.
Beyond the city limits, nearly two-thirds of the county is protected wilderness inside the Daniel Boone National Forest. Small, tightknit communities carry on an Appalachian tradition that has largely resisted change for decades, including followers of the Apostolic Christian faith.
For years, gay members of the university community and Apostolic Christians have tip-toed around each other.
But the Supreme Court’s decision in June in favor of same-sex marriage made a collision perhaps inevitable, as the only thing standing in the way of gays who wanted to marry was the signature of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, a member of the Apostolic Church. Her refusal to sign the marriage licenses since June has landed her in jail for contempt of a federal court. Her case is on appeal.
After the ruling, a handful of conservative county clerks in Kentucky sounded the alarm, realizing it would fall on them to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, an idea they abhorred. But unlike in Rowan County, there is no LGBT community to speak of in those other rural areas — few if any gay couples to demand that the county clerk comply with the Supreme Court ruling.
On Friday, the Rowan County clerk’s office issued marriage certificates to at least five same-sex couples. The documents did not bear Kim Davis’s name and were signed by a deputy clerk.
“This is our civil right,” said April Miller, a professor of education at Morehead State, when she and her partner, Karen Roberts, emerged from the county courthouse with a marriage certificate.
Davis’s backers in Rowan County have characterized the university as an outside force, a troublemaking interloper.
“This community isn’t divided. This community is united,” said Pastor Randy Smith, a supporter of Kim Davis. “The division comes — no disrespect — from Morehead State University.”
But Wayne Andrews, president of Morehead State University, disagreed: “I don’t think this issue is dividing our community.”
In a statement to the Morehead News, he said, “We believe elected officials should obey the law and do their jobs.” Many here agree, and not just those connected to the university.
Andrews has been Morehead’s president since 2005, and during that time the school has consistently ranked among the top public universities in the South by U.S. News & World Report. The university has been racially integrated since 1954 and LGBT-friendly for decades.
“It’s remarkable how many people are involved in the LGBT community here,” said Darbi Hardin, a 20-year-old junior at Morehead State and president of ALLYance, a campus-based group that advocates for their rights.
Morehead passed a fairness ordinance in 2013, becoming one of eight cities in Kentucky to enact such a measure to protect the rights of the LGBT community. The Rowan County Rights Coalition, an off-campus organization, has nearly 1,400 members in its closed Facebook group.
Rowan County has diversified its economy more than most Appalachian counties, but still, some of the best jobs are offered by the government. Davis’s mother, Jean Bailey, was county clerk for 37 years, and Davis was her deputy for 27 of them. Now, Davis employs her son, Nathan Davis, as a deputy. Rowan County allows such nepotism because keeping good jobs in the family is an Appalachian tradition.
“The people of Rowan County voted her in,” said Joe Davis, Kim’s husband and Nathan’s father. “If they were against [nepotism], why did they vote for her?”
Davis narrowly won a three-way Democratic primary in 2014. She cruised to victory in the general election, before same-sex marriage was on the radar, and many supporters of LGBT rights voted for her in November because she was the Democratic candidate.
Now, some county officials are distancing themselves from Davis.“I’m a Christian myself, but I guess she’s more devout than I,” said Rowan County Judge Executive Walter “Doc” Blevins. “I would do it [issue marriage licenses], because it’s the law of the land. That’s what I would do.”
Several local officials have gone further in their criticism. County Attorney Cecil Watkins has asked Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Davis for official misconduct, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Even in those isolated pockets of Rowan County, separated from town by the national forest, support for Davis is not absolute. Jerry Calvert, a retiree who works at the marina at Cave Run Lake, came to the county courthouse Friday to observe the scene, wearing his “Make Cornbread Not War” T-shirt.
“Oh, happy day!” Calvert said, as marriage licenses were issued. “Justice has prevailed.”
But there are others here who adamantly support Davis with every fiber of their being, literally to their dying breath.
Flavis McKinney, 72, was also at the courthouse Friday, but to support Davis. His brother Elbert McKinney couldn’t be there to show his solidarity. He died Tuesday night at 74.
“He died supporting Kim,” Flavis said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Morehead’s status among Kentucky cities that have enacted ordinances to ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Morehead was the sixth Kentucky city to enact such an ordinance, not the second.
Higdon is a freelance writer.