U.S. Supreme Court rebuffs appeal by official who opposed gay marriage

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rebuffed a bid by a county clerk in Kentucky briefly jailed in 2015 for refusing to issue marriage licenses to two same-sex couples to avoid lawsuits they filed that accuse her of violating their constitutional rights.

The justices turned away an appeal by Kim Davis, who no longer serves as Rowan County Clerk, of a lower court ruling that allowed the lawsuits to proceed. But two conservative justices who voted in dissent against legalizing gay marriage in the court’s landmark 2015 ruling said in an opinion released as part of Monday’s action that the case, Obergefell v. Hodges, continues to have “ruinous consequences” for religious liberty.

“Davis may have been one of the first victims of this court’s cavalier treatment of religion in its Obergefell decision, but she will not be the last,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Samuel Alito.

Thomas said the Obergefell decision has left “those with religious objections in the lurch” and made it easier to label them as bigots “merely for refusing to alter their religious beliefs in the wake of prevailing orthodoxy.”

Both justices agreed with the decision to reject the Davis appeal for technical reasons.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Davis could be sued in her individual capacity in her former role as county clerk. The 6th Circuit rejected her argument that she is protected by a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which can shield government officials from liability in certain cases.

Davis, who has earned praise from some conservative Christians, defended her actions by saying that she stopped issuing marriage licenses to everyone regardless of sexual orientation, and the plaintiffs could have obtained licenses elsewhere.

She was jailed for five days in the aftermath of the Obergefell decision for defying court orders to issue licenses in accordance with the high court’s ruling.

The couples – David Ermold and David Moore, and Will Smith and James Yates – sued Davis in 2015, accusing her of violating their constitutional right to marry as recognized in the Obergefell ruling for refusing to provide them marriage licenses. Both couples received their licenses while Davis was in jail.

The stance taken by Thomas and Alito, two of the court’s most conservative justices, comes as the Senate is moving forward quickly with the confirmation process for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, a favorite of Christian conservatives. With the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, only three of the justices who made up the court’s 5-4 majority in the Obergefell ruling still serve on the bench.

In the Obergefell ruling, the court found that the Constitution’s guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law meant states cannot ban same-sex marriages.

In recent years, a number of cases have arisen around the country testing the scope of the Obergefell decision, and the rights of those to object to gay marriage on religious grounds.

On Nov. 4, the justices are due to hear a major religious rights dispute involving the city of Philadelphia’s refusal to place children for foster care with a Catholic agency that bars same-sex couples from serving as foster parents.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Will Dunham)

Same-sex couple can seek damages from Kentucky clerk: U.S. appeals court

Rowan County clerk Kim Davis is shown in this booking photo provided by the Carter County Detention Center in Grayson, Kentucky September 3, 2015. REUTERS/Carter County Detention Center/Handout via Reuters

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Tuesday revived a damages lawsuit against Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who in 2015 refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples because it conflicted with her Christian beliefs.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said a lower court judge erred in finding that damages claims by David Ermold and David Moore became moot, after a new state law last July excused clerks like Davis, from Rowan County, from having to sign marriage license forms.

While the couple eventually did get a license, a three-judge appeals court panel said they could sue over Davis’ initial refusal to grant one, after the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2015 said the Constitution guaranteed a right to same-sex marriage.

“The district court’s characterization of this case as simply contesting the ‘no marriage licenses’ policy is inaccurate because Ermold and Moore did not seek an injunction-they sought only damages,” Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote. “The record does not support an argument that (their) damages claims are insubstantial or otherwise foreclosed.”

Ermold’s and Moore’s case was sent back to U.S. District Judge David Bunning in Covington, Kentucky.

“The ruling keeps the case alive for a little while but it is not a victory for the plaintiffs,” Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, a Christian advocacy group representing Davis, said in a statement. “We are confident we will prevail.”

Michael Gartland, a lawyer for Ermold and Moore, called the decision a “no-brainer,” saying damages claims based on past harm often survive mootness challenges. His clients are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

“Do I think it’s a million dollar case? Probably not,” Gartland said in an interview. “The next step will be to go to discovery and go to trial, where I am confident we will obtain a judgment against Davis.”

The refusal of Davis to issue licenses made her a national symbol for opposition to Obergefell v Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

The case is Ermold et al v. Davis, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-6412.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Davis Case Brings Religious Freedom Issues to Forefront

The recent jailing of a Christian in Kentucky because of her stand for her beliefs is bringing about a national debate on the issue of religious freedom and religious accommodation.

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, recently spent five days in jail because she refused to compromise her Christian beliefs.

“Thank you all so much. I love you all so very much,” she said. “I just want to give God the glory. His people have rallied, and you are a strong people. We serve a living God who knows exactly where each and every one of us is at. Just keep on pressing. Don’t let down, because he is here. He’s worthy.”

The lawyers in the case say the problem is that the judge involved with the case will not make an accommodation to Davis based on her faith that would allow her to complete her tasks without violating her “Constitutionally protected” freedom of speech.

“We’ve asked for a simple solution — get her name and authority off the certificate. The judge could order that,” attorney Mat Staver said.

Now, the Kentucky legislature has a majority of members calling on the Governor to hold a special session to look at religious accommodation laws and ways that the religious freedom of people of all faiths can be protected.  The Governor has refused stating a desire to not spend taxpayer dollars.

Missouri lawmakers have also announced an intention to introduce laws to “protect religious liberty.”

Judge Orders Kim Davis Released from Jail

On Tuesday Morning, U.S. District Judge David Bunning, the same judge who initially jailed  Kim Davis, the court clerk from Kentucky last Thursday on a contempt of court charge has ordered her release. Davis has been held for five days for refusing to issue marriage licenses to all couples after the recent Supreme Court Decision that re-defined marriage for all states.   

Judge Bunning lifted that order Tuesday, allowing her to be released stating that the court is “satisfied.” Since last week, the clerk’s office has been issuing marriage licenses “to all legally eligible couples” — those licenses have been issued by Davis’ deputy clerks. At the same time, Bunning directed Davis not to “interfere in any way” with the marriage licenses now being issued by her office.

Kentucky Clerk Appeals Jail Order

Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to hand out marriage licenses to same-sex couples, has appealed the contempt in court ruling that put her in jail last week.

“As a prisoner of her conscience, Davis continues to request a simple accommodation and exemption from Governor Beshear, who is overseeing Kentucky marriage policy,” the appeal states.

Davis is represented by the non-profit legal advocacy group Liberty Counsel, who officially appealed the decision Sunday with a three page motion that doesn’t list why she should be released, but amends Davis’ earlier appeal of the judge’s order. However, her reasons for refusing to issue marriage licenses were clear as she has repeatedly stated that she does not support same-sex marriage due to her religious beliefs. The Liberty Counsel argues that her religious beliefs are not being protected.

“The governor’s refusal to take elementary steps to protect religious liberties has now landed Kim Davis in jail,” Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver said.

In June, Davis stopped issuing all marriage licenses shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Davis was sued by two homosexual couples and two straight couples. U.S. District Judge David Bunning, with the support of the Supreme Court, sided with the couples and ordered Davis to issue the licenses.

Davis still refused to issue marriage licenses, which led to Bunning ruling that Davis was in contempt of court for disobeying his order and Davis being sent to jail. However, the couples who sued Davis did not intend her for her to be jailed according to their attorney, Daniel Canon.

While Davis is behind bars, five of her deputies have agreed to hand out marriage licenses in her absence.

“Civil rights are civil rights and they are not subject to belief,” said James Yates, who was able to receive a marriage license on Friday after being denied five times.

Davis has now been in jail for five days, but Bunning stated that she could be in jail for a week or longer if she continues to refuse the his orders. Bunning has offered to release Davis as long as she allows her deputy clerks to continue handing out marriage licenses, but Davis refused.

“She’s not going to resign, she’s not going to sacrifice her conscience, so she’s doing what Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, which is to pay the consequences for her decision,” Mat Staver, one of Davis’ attorneys, said.

Staver added that Davis will remain in jail until a compromise is reached. He stated that his client would be willing to hand out marriage licenses if her name was removed from the licenses. The legislature could vote for the removal of clerks’ names from licenses, but the legislation won’t be in until January. Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear stated last week that he wouldn’t call for a special session because it would cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money.”

The case has brought protests and rallies for each side. On Saturday, approximately 200 supporters of Davis’ decision gathered and prayed on Saturday. Several even shouted “Thank you, Kim” repeatedly and held up signs that read “Kim Davis for President.”

GOP Presidential hopeful, Mike Huckabee, has also openly supported Kim Davis and her decision. The former Arkansas governor plans to visit Davis and rally her supporters on Tuesday.

As for Davis, her attorneys say that she is in a cell by herself. She has been occupying her time by studying her Bible while in jail.