MOREHEAD, Ky. — Kim Davis returned to work Monday for the first time since she was jailed for defying a federal court and announced that she would no longer block her deputies from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Standing at the courthouse door, the Kentucky county clerk read from a handwritten statement and explained in a quivering voice that she had been faced with a “seemingly impossible choice” between following her conscience and losing her freedom.
So she agreed to an “emergency stopgap” concession, her lawyer later said: She did not stop her deputy clerk from issuing licenses edited to remove her name, her title and her authorization. But she said she had “grave concerns” that the licenses would be invalid without her blessing.
The only couple to receive a license on Monday walked into a surreal scene. Shannon and Carmen Wampler-Collins squeezed through a throng of reporters and protesters and stood at the counter, microphones bobbing above their heads.
Deputy clerk Brian Mason, who began issuing licenses when Davis was put in jail, worked behind a sign anointing him the “marriage license deputy.” He has issued a dozen licenses since Davis was jailed Sept. 8, eight of them to same-sex couples, and has pledged to continue issuing them despite his boss’s wishes.
Hecklers shouted “coward” at him from the side of room. Mason, a 38-year-old former retail worker who unwittingly fell into the middle of the firestorm, smiled at them and turned back to his work.
“It’s a little crazy,” said Mason, who has worked for Davis for a year and a half, “but I try not to let it bother me.”
One protester waved a Bible and shouted. Elizabeth Johnston from Ohio screamed, “Don’t let Kim’s five days in jail be in vain.”
Marriage equality supporters tried to drown them out: “Love has won,” they chanted.
The scene dragged on for half an hour as Davis remained in her office, the door closed and the blinds drawn. Mason went into her office three times, though he attributed the holdup to printer and software problems.
When he finally finished the license, he handed it to the couple and shook their hands. The document, a template issued by the state and filled out by each clerk, had been altered. Where the name of the clerk and the county is typically entered, it said instead “pursuant to federal court order.”
Her attorneys later said they hoped the concession would satisfy the judge’s order enough to keep her out of jail. But they said the validity of the licenses remains in limbo. They called on the Legislature to rewrite state law to accommodate clerks with religious objections and blamed Gov. Steve Beshear for refusing to call a special session to find a solution.
The governor, the attorney general and the county attorney have said the licenses are valid.
But attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued Davis on behalf of four couples denied licenses by her office, said late Monday that they “have concerns about the validity of the marriage licenses issued today given the further alteration of the forms.”
The ACLU’s lawsuit led to Davis spending five nights in jail for contempt of court. U.S. District Court Judge David Bunning let her out last week under strict orders to “not interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, with the efforts of her deputy clerks to issue marriage licenses to all legally eligible couples.”
“We brought this case to ensure that our clients and all eligible couples could legally marry in Rowan County,” ACLU attorney James Esseks said in a statement. “We are reviewing the changes to determine our next steps.”
A Democrat and Apostolic Christian elected last fall, Davis rocketed to folk-hero status among many Christian conservatives when she refused to issue licenses after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. She defied a federal court order, lost a string of appeals, then sat in a jail cell as hundreds of protesters, news crews and politicians descended on this small, rural town unaccustomed to media spectacles.
Davis said she did not want to be in the spotlight.
“And I certainly don’t want to be a whipping post. I am no hero. I’m just a person that’s been transformed by the grace of God, who wants to work, be with my family. I just want to serve my neighbors quietly without violating my conscience,” she said.
Outside, the Rowan County Courthouse plaza took on the air of a carnival: Media packed into white-topped tents. Christian music blared from loudspeakers. People shouted Bible verses from the sidewalk. A plane flew overhead trailing a rainbow banner.
A fissure became apparent Monday between the out-of-town activists who arrived in droves several weeks ago, and Davis’ homegrown supporters who have stood beside her for months.
The ordeal has drawn some of the most fervent Christian activists from across the country. Their trucks were parked up and down the street, with license plates from Colorado to Iowa to North Carolina, bearing signs like “sodomy ruins nations” and “repent.”
Johnston, screaming in the back of Davis’ office, said she was disappointed that Davis allowed a license to be issued, rather than risk being jailed again by firing the deputy who agreed to sign them.
“We want her to be our Rosa Parks,” said Johnston, who traveled from Zanesville, Ohio, with her nine children and a 10th on the way. Any compromise was unacceptable, she said.
Davis’ local supporters took a more temperate stand.
Serena Smith, a Morehead native, said she is happy so long as Davis feels like she’s not being forced to violate her faith. That’s all they’ve wanted all along, she said.
Of the out-of-towners, she said, “they need to go back home.”
CLAIRE GALOFARO, Associated Press
Associated Press Writer Adam Beam contributed from Louisville, Kentucky.