For someone who’s worked in a courthouse office for the past 24 years, you’d think Kim Davis would understand how local government hierarchy works, but it seems that the jailed clerk missed that day of elected official school. Davis, 57, was taken into custody by U.S. marshals on Thursday and subsequently jailed for refusing to comply with a court order forcing her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The clerk had been refusing to issue them since the June 26 Supreme Court ruling made gay marriage legal, saying that it went against her religious beliefs. In a bizarre statement through her lawyer Mat Staver of the conservative Liberty Counsel on Friday, Davis claimed licenses issued in her absence were “void” because they did not contain her signature.
“They are not worth the paper that they are written on,” Staver told reporters, likening Davis to Civil Rights figure Martin Luther King, Jr. “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.”
Yikes. There are so many things wrong with that statement, but for sanity’s sake, let’s start from the top.
First off, yes — those marriage licenses are still totally valid. In fact, there’s this thing we like to call “chain of command,” which gives power to deputy county clerks in the absence of a county clerk, as The Lexington Herald-Leader pointed out on Friday. Rowan County Attorney Cecil Watkins also confirmed as much during an interview with The Kentucky Trial Court Review on Wednesday. The publication reported,
[Watkins] has learned that deputy clerks would issue lawful marriage licenses. They are simply afraid to do so. And if Judge Bunning instructs them to do so ... they will. Davis has put, in the words of Watkins, her employees and everyone in the courthouse in a ‘terrible position.’
Moving past the part where Davis’ employees admitted they were afraid of her tyrannical reign, let’s talk about how attorney Staver just compared his client to Martin Luther King, Jr., for Christ’s sake. Not only is that comparison ridiculous and illogical, it’s insulting to King’s legacy, which was founded on the premise that all people should be equal and have the same opportunities.
By refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because, as Davis claims, God supposedly thinks homosexuality is yucky, the clerk is not only discriminating against an entire subset of the population, she’s denying them their rights under the law too — and despite what Davis and her team of uber-conservative lawyers think, King, if he were still alive, would probably roll his eyes hard at the sheer absurdity of her “civil disobedience.”
The other thing about all of this is that Davis hasn’t just been denying same-sex couples the right to marry, she’s been refusing to issue licenses to straight couples as well. Even if Davis’ supporters wanted to use the age-old “infringing on religious liberty” line to argue that Davis shouldn’t have been jailed, the fact of the matter is that she was shirking her duties as an elected official to all county residents, regardless of their sexual orientation. And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, that’s potentially punishable by law.
According to the Kentucky legislative handbook, any county clerk who fails to comply with their preset duties under the current marriage laws could be subject to discipline by the courts system:
Any county clerk who knowingly issues a marriage license in violation [of current law] shall be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor [...] and removed from office by the judgment of the court.
Obviously, there's a catch here, as Davis hasn't been issuing any licenses at all, but a judge might very well look at her case and decide to slap her with fines or more jail time regardless. And even if that's not the case, the handbook also states that county officials are "subject to indictment or prosecution for misfeasance, malfeasance, or willful neglect of duty"... So yeah, about that whole spat over the licenses being “void” thing? Davis is totally in the wrong, and she just landed herself in a whole lot more trouble.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Davis' lawyers aren’t using the inevitable media spotlight to their advantage either. On Friday, the Liberty Counsel issued a statement on Davis’ behalf, saying,
Last night Kim Davis was incarcerated in a jail cell while the rest of us slept in our comfortable beds. While it is not new that some people are imprisoned, it is stunning to realize Kim is there because of her faith in God and her convictions about marriage.
… Today a Christian is imprisoned for believing what the voters affirmed: marriage is between a man and a woman. Five people on the Supreme Court imposed their will on 320 million Americans and unleashed a torrent of assaults against people of faith. Kim Davis is the first victim of this tragedy.