U.S. judge rules against Kentucky clerk who denied same-sex marriage licenses

March 19 (Reuters) - A U.S. judge ruled that a former county clerk from Kentucky knowingly violated the rights of same-sex couples by denying them marriage licenses in 2015, clearing the way for a jury trial seeking damages against her.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge David Bunning on Friday also denied a request for immunity from former Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis.

Davis thrust herself into the center of the U.S. culture wars on the issue of LGBTQ rights by denying the licenses in 2015, citing her religious beliefs. She briefly went to jail for contempt of court over her refusal and a deputy clerk in the eastern Kentucky county issued the licenses.

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

The two couples in the lawsuit had sought to marry in the immediate aftermath of the landmark 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges. They sued Davis in 2015, alleging she had violated their constitutional rights.

In the Obergefell case, the highest court in the United States found that, under the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, states must grant same-sex marriages and recognize those of other states.

But Davis repeatedly refused to issue marriage licenses, despite a letter from the governor instructing all county clerks to issue the licenses and a legal opinion from the Rowan County attorney, which she had sought, advising that she had a legal requirement to do so.

"It is readily apparent that Obergefell recognizes Plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment right to marry. It is also readily apparent that Davis made a conscious decision to violate Plaintiffs' right," the judge ruled in a summary judgment.

With the essential facts in the case now settled, the two couples, David Ermold and David Moore in one case and James Yates and Will Smith in another, can proceed to jury trial to seek damages against Davis as an individual.

Davis had previously been granted sovereign immunity in her official capacity.

Liberty Counsel, a Christian organization representing Davis, said it would continue to argue she is not liable for damages because she is entitled to a religious accommodation granted by the state legislature and former Governor Matt Bevin.

The group's statement also noted that conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court could seek to revisit and overturn the Obergefell decision.

"This case raises serious First Amendment free exercise of religion claims and has a high potential of reaching the Supreme Court," Liberty Counsel founder and Chairman Mat Staver said in the statement.

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by Jonathan Oatis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.