Former Kentucky clerk Kim Davis can be sued for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses: court

Davis cited her religion as justification for discriminating against same-sex couples who wished to legally wed

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 27, 2019 11:42AM (EDT)

Kim Davis (AP/Timothy D. Easley)
Kim Davis (AP/Timothy D. Easley)

Kim Davis, the former Kentucky county clerk who cited her religion as a justification for discriminating against same-sex couples who wished to legally wed in her state, can now face legal action from her victims.

In an unanimous decision, a panel of three judges on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that Davis can be sued after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples while serving in her elected office, according to Reuters.

While Davis was immune from being sued so long as she held the office of Rowan County Clerk, she no longer holds that position. Thus, the judicial panel ruled that she can now be sued as an individual.

"In short, plaintiffs pleaded a violation of their right to marry: a right the Supreme Court clearly established in 'Obergefell,'" Circuit Judge Richard Griffin wrote in his decision. "The district court therefore correctly denied qualified immunity to Davis."

Davis faces lawsuits from David Ermold, David Moore, Will Smith and James Yates, a pair of same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses during her tenure as Rowan County Clerk. She cited her sincerely held religious beliefs as a reason for refusing to grant the licenses.

Mat Staver, the founder of Liberty Counsel, which previously represented Davis, told Reuters that "at the end of the day, she will ultimately prevail. She had no hostility to anyone, given that she stopped issuing all marriage licenses. The broader issue is what accommodation a court should provide someone based on their religious beliefs. It’s a matter of time before such a case goes squarely before the Supreme Court."

Last year, Davis lost her re-election bid for Rowan County Clerk to a Democratic challenger, Elwood Caudill. Caudill successfully defeated Ermold in the party's primary, with Ermold later accusing Caudill of also being an anti-gay bigot.

During the campaign, attention was drawn to a lawsuit Davis had filed against former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who she claimed violated her religious rights by compelling her to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

"The Commonwealth of Kentucky, acting through Governor Beshear, has deprived Davis of her religious-conscience rights guaranteed by the United States and Kentucky constitutions and laws, by insisting that Davis issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples contrary to her conscience, based on her sincerely held religious beliefs," Davis' lawsuit alleged.

Davis made her opposition to same-sex marriage a signature issue, even visiting Romania in 2017 in order to urge that nation to pass laws prohibiting such unions. That same year, she published a book, in which she claimed to be the true victim. The description of the book read:

This true story goes behind the scenes to reveal how God gave this unlikely candidate a platform to defend marriage and religious freedom.

In this amazing narrative of redemption and courage, Davis details her personal experience from the moment former Governor Beshear ordered the state’s county clerks to issue same-sex marriage licenses, throughout her arrest and release from jail.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee “It’s a great read. But more than that, this remarkable story of what God did in Kim’s life gives me hope for our nation.”

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin said, “When history called upon Kim, she was both ready and willing to respond. Will the same be said of you?

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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