ASHLAND, Ky. (Reuters) - A Kentucky county clerk was jailed on Thursday for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and a full day of court hearings failed to put an end to her two-month-old legal fight over a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding same-sex marriage.
U.S. District Judge David Bunning found Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in contempt then elicited a pledge from five of her six deputies to issue the licenses. But attorneys for Davis said she would deny them that authority, raising questions about the validity of any licenses they might issue.
The 49-year-old woman, who has emerged as a darling of social conservatives, has refused to issue licenses to any couples, gay or straight, since the U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry under the U.S. Constitution, citing her beliefs as an Apostolic Christian.
“Marriage is a union between one man and one woman,” the soft-spoken Davis told the court under questioning by her attorney.
Bunning warned the deputies they would be back in court if they refused to resume issuing licenses on Friday. “I would hate to have to come back to Ashland,” he said, referring to the court venue. He said it would be up to same-sex couples to decide whether to test the validity of the licenses.
Davis, who broke down crying earlier in her testimony, was led away by U.S. marshals after the first hearing, where Bunning held her in contempt and ordered her jailed. She did not attend the subsequent hearings, but communicated through her attorneys.
Thursday’s proceedings were the culmination of months of legal wrangling and refusals by Davis to abide by a judge’s order to do her job, drawing global attention and protests from those both for and against gay marriage rights.
Before and during the hearings, about 200 demonstrators gathered outside the Ashland, Kentucky, courthouse, some chanting slogans and many holding signs. As word of the ruling emerged, supporters of same-sex marriage erupted in cheers.
Davis was being held at the Carter County Detention Center in Grayson, Kentucky. Her son Nathan, the one deputy who would not agree to issue gay marriage licenses, was not jailed.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday said it was “appropriate” for a federal judge to resolve the matter.
“No public official is above the rule of law, certainly not president of the United States, but neither is the Rowan county clerk,” he said.
Davis’ jailing drew instant criticism from her supporters with Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee tweeting, “Kim Davis in federal custody removes all doubts about the criminalization of Christianity in this country.”
Christian lobbying group Family Research Council said religious freedom in the United States was under attack. It urged Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear to call for a special session of the state legislature to alter the law to accommodate clerks like Davis.
In a statement the governor said a special session was unnecessary and too costly. He said Bunning’s decision spoke for itself and the courts were settling the matter, giving access to marriage licenses to Rowan County residents.
He said he had no authority to relieve county clerks of their statutory duties by executive order.
Another Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, told MSNBC before the ruling that Davis had to abide by the Supreme Court ruling.
Davis told Fox News earlier she was ready to go to jail for her beliefs.
“I’ve weighed the cost and I’m prepared to go to jail,” she told Fox in an interview published on Thursday. “This has never been a gay or lesbian issue for me. This is about upholding the word of God.”
Apostolic Christian beliefs are rooted in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
A Democrat, Davis earns about $80,000 a year in the elected office, according to state officials. In explaining his decision to jail her, Bunning said he did not think a fine would be effective.
Davis is being legally represented at no cost by Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based Christian religious advocacy organization.
Back in Morehead, Kentucky, phones at the clerk’s office rang busy and a sign on the door from Davis said the office was closed for the day as she and her staff appeared in Ashland for the hearing. The sign said the office would reopen on Friday.
Additional reporting by Daniel Bases in New York, Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago and Ayesha Roscoe, Emily Stephenson and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Writing by Ben Klayman; Editing by Howard Goller