WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Kentucky county clerk who faces a contempt hearing in federal court on Thursday for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples is represented by a Florida-based legal group with a history of long-shot battles on behalf of conservative Christian causes.
Founded in 1989, the nonprofit Liberty Counsel is run by Mathew Staver and his wife, Anita. Staver, who until last year was dean of the law school at Liberty University, founded by the late conservative Christian firebrand Jerry Falwell, has argued and lost two U.S. Supreme Court cases. In one, he represented abortion protestors in Florida; in the other, he argued on behalf of Kentucky counties that posted the Ten Commandments in courthouses.
Liberty Counsel, based in Orlando, has provided free counsel to Rowan County clerk Kim Davis since soon after a June 26 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. The thrice-divorced Davis is an Apostolic Christian who announced soon after the court issued its decision that her religious beliefs would not allow her to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
Liberty Counsel and another conservative Christian group, Alliance Defending Freedom have been involved in a number of similar disputes involving officials who refused to uphold same-sex marriage laws on religious grounds.
On the other side, liberal legal groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have been quick to take on the causes of gay couples seeking to marry. The ACLU currently represents four couples that sued Davis after she refused to issue licenses.
The court hearing scheduled in Ashland, Kentucky for Thursday stems from a decision by U.S. District Judge David Bunning on August 19 that Davis was required to issue licenses despite her religious objections.
On Thursday, Bunning will hear arguments about whether Davis should be held in contempt for failing to comply with his earlier order.
In an interview, Staver predicted that the Kentucky case will be just one of many to arise from the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, asserting that “the battleground is religious freedom.”
Staver’s group has a reputation for taking a tough stand against not just same-sex marriage but gay rights in general. It has about 10 lawyers on staff and about 300 volunteer attorneys around the country, Staver said.
One of the most prominent Liberty Counsel cases was a long-running child custody dispute between a lesbian couple over their daughter. The group represented Lisa Miller, who renounced her lesbian identity and became a devout Christian. Liberty Counsel unsuccessfully fought to prevent Miller’s former partner, Janet Jenkins, from having visitation rights. In 2009, Miller fled to Nicaragua with the child, prompting a string of separate criminal investigations.
Liberty Counsel has also represented opponents of bans on therapy intended to “cure” same-sex attraction.
More recently, Staver’s group was involved in a dispute similar to Davis’ earlier this year in North Carolina. There, the group represented magistrates who objected to issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The lawsuit was dropped after the state legislature changed the law, allowing magistrates to opt out of issuing marriage licenses for religious reasons.
Liberty Counsel also intervened in Alabama in support of probate judges who resisted issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Other litigation against the right to gay marriage has been dominated by the larger Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Based in Scottsdale, Arizona, the group represented some state and local governments trying to maintain bans on gay marriage.
Among those who support gay marriage, Liberty Counsel has a reputation for being more extreme than ADF.
“Liberty Counsel is among the most irresponsible of ‘Religious Right’ organizations,” said Greg Lipper, an attorney at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “ADF at least tries to fit its legal arguments within existing law; Liberty Counsel openly flouts it.”
Jim Campbell, an ADF lawyer, said his group has not consulted with Liberty Counsel on the Kentucky case and is not representing any county clerk in related litigation. Campbell said he worked with a few employees of county clerk offices outside Kentucky seeking to avoid issuing licenses to same-sex couples based on religion and said those situations were resolved within those offices and had not escalated to a lawsuits.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley. Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Sue Horton