- A former Kentucky county clerk violated two gay couples’ constitutional rights when she refused to marry them, a judge ruled.
- Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to two gay couples in 2015, saying she was “upholding the word of God.”
- The ruling clears the way for the case to go to trial over damages for the plaintiffs.
A federal judge on Friday ruled that former Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis violated two gay couples’ constitutional rights when she refused to marry them.
Davis briefly went to jail in 2015 for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, even after the US Supreme Court ruled that same year that the constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry. In her refusal, Davis cited religion, saying she was “upholding the word of God.”
“It is this Court’s opinion that Davis violated Plaintiffs’ constitutional right to marry,” US Judge David Bunning of the Eastern District of Kentucky said in Friday’s ruling.
The decision opens the door for the possibility of punitive damages for the couples she refused to marry, David Ermold and David Moore, and Will Smith and James Yates. Both couples filed civil suits against her, according to court documents.
In his ruling, Bunning said despite the fact “Davis read and understood the Obergefell decision,” she still told her employees not to issue the marriage licenses.
“Davis told the Ermold Plaintiffs that she could not give them a marriage license ‘under God’s authority,'” the ruling said.
Ermold and Moore applied for marriage licenses twice more at the Rowan County Clerk’s Office, and Smith and Yates applied for marriage licenses four more times. Both sets of plaintiffs were finally granted marriage licenses by a deputy clerk while Davis was being held in jail in 2015, according to court documents.
“Based on the record before the Court, it seems plausible that Davis could have acted with reckless indifference to the constitutional rights of Plaintiffs. Davis was aware that Obergefell prohibited states from excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry, yet she still refused to issue marriage licenses to Plaintiffs,” Bunning wrote.
Davis’ court battles
In 2015, Davis, the clerk of Rowan County in northeast Kentucky, stopped issuing marriage licenses after the Supreme Court overturned bans on same-sex marriage nationwide. Davis was held in contempt of court, and her staff began to issue the licenses in her absence. Though Davis won office in 2014 as a Democrat, she switched to the Republican party after she was released from jail.
In 2018, Davis lost her reelection bid for clerk of Rowan County. One of the people to whom Davis denied a marriage license, David Ermold, ran against her. Davis ultimately lost to Democrat Elwood Caudill Jr.
In 2019, a federal appeals court ruled that Davis could be sued for damages in an individual capacity. Sovereign immunity protected her from being sued when she was the Rowan County Clerk.
While fighting the issue, Davis claimed that the Supreme Court ruling did not apply to her because she stopped issuing marriage licenses for everyone, not just gay couples. The appeals court ruled that argument was “as sweeping as it was unequivocal.”
Plaintiffs are ‘finally going to get their day in court’
The next court date is slated for April 1, where a trial date is likely to be set. Both couples are seeking an unspecified amount as well as the cost of attorneys’ fees, according to court documents.
“The plaintiffs could not be more happy,” attorney Michael Gartland, who represents plaintiffs Ermold and Moore, told WKYT.
“As the court notes in the decision, this case has been pending since 2015. They couldn’t be more happy that they’re finally going to get their day in court and they’re confident justice will be served,” Gartland added.
Rene Heinrich and W. Kash Stilz, Jr., attorneys for Smith and Yates, told Insider they were “thrilled that Judge Bunning agreed our clients’ constitutional right to marry was violated.”
“James and Will are happy that we can proceed to the next stage toward putting this awful time of their life in the past and move on as a couple,” Heinrich told Insider.
Liberty Counsel, who is representing Davis, said she argues that “a finding of liability would violate the First Amendment Free Exercise of Religion.”
“Liberty Counsel represents Davis and will continue to argue that she is not liable for damages because she was entitled to a religious accommodation,” the organization said in a statement.