ASHLAND, Ky. – A defiant county clerk went to jail Thursday for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, but five of her deputies agreed to comply with the law, ending a two-month church-state standoff in Rowan County, Kentucky.
U.S. District Judge David Bunning said he had no choice but to jail Kim Davis for contempt after she insisted that her "conscience will not allow" her to follow federal court rulings on gay marriage.
"God's moral law conflicts with my job duties," Davis told the judge before she was taken away. "You can't be separated from something that's in your heart and in your soul."
The judge later tried to keep Davis out of jail after all. He rejected her lawyer's argument that deputy clerks cannot act against her authority, and required them to declare their intentions.
All but the clerk's son, Nathan Davis, promised to comply. The judge said his refusal wouldn't matter and that his mother could go free as long as she promises not to interfere with issuing of marriage licenses to all couples.
But Kim Davis rejected the offer, choosing jail instead, her attorneys said.
With that, the hearing ended, and gay and lesbian couples vowed to appear at the Rowan County clerk's office yet again Friday, to see if the deputy clerks keep their promises.
"We're going to the courthouse tomorrow to get our marriage license and we're very excited about that," said April Miller, who has been engaged to Karen Roberts for 11 years.
As word of Davis' jailing spread outside the federal courthouse, hundreds of people chanted and screamed, "Love won! Love won!"
But Davis' lawyer, Roger Gannam, compared her willingness to accept imprisonment to what Martin Luther King Jr. did to advance civil rights, and said "everyone should lament and mourn the fact that her freedom has been taken away for what she believes."
Laura Landenwich, an attorney for the plaintiffs, rejected the comparison.
"Ms. Davis is in an unfortunate situation of her own creation. She is not a martyr. No one created a martyr today," Landenwich said. "She is not above the law."
Speaking earlier from the bench, Bunning said it would set up a "slippery slope" to allow an individual's ideas to supersede the courts' authority.
"Her good faith belief is simply not a viable defense," Bunning said. "I myself have genuinely held religious beliefs ... but I took an oath."
"Mrs. Davis took an oath," he added. "Oaths mean things."
Davis is represented by the Liberty Counsel, which advocates in court for religious freedom. Before she was led away, Davis said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide conflicts with the vows she made when she became a born-again Christian.
"I promised to love Him with all my heart, mind and soul because I wanted to make heaven my home," Davis said.
Miller and Roberts were denied a marriage license four times by Davis or her deputies since the June ruling. Miller testified that one of the deputy clerks told her to apply in another county. "That's kind of like saying we don't want gays or lesbians here. We don't think you are valuable," she said.
Rather than be fined, jailed or lose their jobs, five of the clerks told the judge they would issue the licenses.
"I don't really want to, but I will comply with the law," said one, Melissa Thompson. "I'm a preacher's daughter and this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life," she added. "I don't hate anybody ... None of us do."
Davis, an Apostolic Christian whose critics mock her for being on her fourth marriage, stopped serving all couples after the Supreme Court ruling in June. Many supporters and even some Republican presidential candidates have rallied behind her.
"People are calling the office all the time asking to send money," she testified. "I myself have not solicited any money."
Davis said she hopes the Legislature will change Kentucky laws to find some way for her to keep her job while following her conscience. But unless the governor convenes a costly special session, they won't meet until January. "Hopefully our legislature will get something taken care of," she told the judge.
Until then, the judge said, he has no alternative but to keep her behind bars.
"The legislative and executive branches do have the ability to make changes," Bunning said. "It's not this court's job to make changes. I don't write law."
Davis served as her mother's deputy in the clerk's office for 27 years before she was elected as a Democrat to succeed her mother in November. As an elected official, she can be removed only if the Legislature impeaches her, which is unlikely in a deeply conservative state.
Former Republican President George W. Bush nominated David Bunning for a lifetime position as a federal judge in 2001 when he was just 35 years old, halfway through his father's first term in the Senate. But Bunning has been anything but a sure thing for conservative causes, ruling against a partial-birth abortion ban and in favor of a Gay-Straight high school club.