Kentucky clerk asks Supreme Court to intervene in marriage case

The Supreme Court is being asked by a Kentucky county clerk for permission to keep denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples months after the court legalized gay marriage.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who opposes to gay marriage for religious reasons, asked the nation’s highest court on Friday to grant her “asylum for her conscience.”

The Supreme Court ruled in June that the Constitution guarantees gay people the right to marry. However, Davis contends the First Amendment guarantees her the right of religious freedom. She stopped issuing all marriage licenses in the days after the landmark decision. Two gay couples and two straight couples sued her, arguing that she must fulfill her duties as an elected official despite her religious conviction. A federal court judge ordered Davis to issue licenses and an appeals court upheld the decision.

Davis’ lawyers said they filed an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court Friday, asking that they delay the mandate to issue licenses until her appeal is over, a process that could stretch for months.

Jonathan D. Christman, Davis’ attorney, said forcing her to abandon her Christian principles and issue licenses could never be undone, wrote the court. He compared it to forcing a person who objects to war into the battlefield, or forcing a person who opposes capital punishment to carry out an execution.

"That searing act of personal validation would forever, and irreversibly, echo in her conscience — and, if it happened, there is no absolution or correction that any earthly court can provide to rectify it," he wrote.

Davis argues the couples could drive to a nearby county to get a marriage licenses. But the couples say that they have a right to get a marriage license in the country where they live, work and pay taxes.

Davis' case will fall to Sixth Circuit Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal judge who joined the majority opinion in legalizing gay marriage. Kagan could reject it outright in a matter of days, or she could ask the couples' attorneys to file a response and refer it to court for review.

Dan Canon, an attorney representing the couples, called Davis' latest challenge "meritless."

"We've already had four federal judges speak very clearly on this particular issue, and I don't anticipate the response from Justice Kagan is going to be any different," Canon said. "Each time we get an opinion on this case, it's a reaffirmation of what is a core tenant of American democracy: an elected politician can't govern an entire county according to his or her own private religious beliefs. They have to follow the law."

University of Louisville law professor Sam Marcosson said he believes Kagan will deny Davis, and the question will become what the clerk will decide to do under contempt of court charge, which can carry fines or jail time.

Davis has said she will not resign from her $80,000-a-year job, and vowed that she will never license a same-sex marriage. She has turned couples away for two months, in defiance of a series of court orders.

Davis cannot be fired because she is an elected official. The Legislature could impeach her, but that is unlikely given that many state lawmakers share her beliefs. The Republican president of the state Senate spoke at a rally last week in support of Davis.

The gay couples that sued her could ask U.S. District Judge David Bunning to hold Davis in contempt. That would trigger another court hearing and would likely include testimony from Davis herself. The judge could then order hefty fines or even put her in jail until she complies with the order.

Davis also asked Bunning on Friday to give her more time to continue her appeals. He rejected her request.

Several couples said they plan to return to the courthouse next week to try again for a license. For some, it will be their fourth attempt.

"This has been an emotional roller coaster for our clients," Canon said. "We've won every step of the way. And we don't expect that to change. But even still they have not been able to get their marriage licenses."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.