Kentucky clerk who denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples can't avoid liability for civil rights violations, judge rules

Mar 25, 22
Kentucky clerk who denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples can't avoid liability for civil rights violations, judge rules

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LGBTQ Legal Issues

LGBTQ flag and gavel

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A federal judge in Kentucky has ruled that a former Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk who denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples cannot duck liability for violating their civil rights. But the court left it up to a jury to decide whether she should pay damages.

In 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodgesenshrined the right of same-sex couples to get married, the clerk, Kim Davis, denied marriage licenses to several couples that came to her eastern Kentucky office.

Davis, who created an international furor when she turned the couples away, told them that she was denying them the licenses “under God’s authority,” according to the court’s ruling. Davis has said she objected to same-sex marriages.

In two cases before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, her attorneys claimed that she was shielded from liability as a government official and because her actions were permissible under Kentucky’s Religious Freedoms Restoration Act.

But in a ruling issued March 18, U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning of the Eastern District of Kentucky rejected Davis’ claim that she could avoid liability. He found that she had knowingly violated the couples’ constitutional rights, even after the Supreme Court protected them in Obergefell under the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The couples are seeking damages and legal fees. Bunning said the couples’ testimony in the two cases “at the very least creates a genuine issue of material fact as to whether they are entitled to damages” and said “punitive damages may very well be an available remedy.” But he said a jury must decide.

According to the ruling, plaintiff David Ermold had testified that every “time I think of my marriage, I have to think about Kim Davis and the experience, how we were humiliated and treated like less than human beings.”

Responding to the court’s ruling on Twitter, Ermold said the court’s ruling “feels like seven years of legal purgatory.”

“Judge Bunning finally ruled that Kim Davis intentionally violated our constitutional rights. Now, the question is will they hold her financially responsible for the insensitive and irrational legal mess that she created,” Ermold’s Twitter post states.

Liberty Counsel, a religious freedom organization headquartered in Maitland, Florida, represents Davis, who lost her bid for reelection in 2018, according to NPR. Its founder and chairman, Mat Staver, said the Supreme Court might ultimately decide the case.

“Kim Davis is entitled to protection to an accommodation based on her sincere religious belief,” Staver said in a press release.

The opinion noted that Davis, anticipating a Supreme Court decision, wrote to lawmakers to ask them to give her a religious exemption. But after the ruling, then-Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear had written to the clerk and explained that the decision was binding. The Rowan County attorney also advised her to follow the law.

“Any argument that Davis made a mistake, instead of a conscious decision to violate the law, is not only contrary to the record but also borders on incredulous,” Bunning wrote in the 22-page decision.

Bunning also found that Davis, who he jailed in 2015 for contempt of court, could not use religious freedom to duck responsibility for her conduct as the county clerk.

“Ultimately, this court’s determination is simple—Davis cannot use her own constitutional rights as a shield to violate the constitutional rights of others while performing her duties as an elected official,” he wrote.

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