Clerk Who Refused to Issue Marriage Licenses to Same-Sex Couples Ordered to Pay Damages
Kim Davis may not be a household name, but her actions in 2015 created a stir that did become a household story. For context as to why a $100,000 verdict is a headline, think back to long ago: 2015.
Not quite two weeks after the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision, on July 7, 2015, Kim Davis, who at the time was the Court Clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky, began denying marriage licenses after marriage was recognized as a civil right and legalizing same-sex marriage. At least one of the couples who were denied marriage licenses recorded their interaction with Ms. Davis. This video was subsequently released online, sparking a controversy. Kim Davis had made a decision which would embroil her in lawsuits for years.
After Denying Marriage Licenses, Davis Sued Three Times
First, the denied couples teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and private counsel to sue the clerk. Kim Davis refused to cooperate and was jailed for five days during this process. After she was released back to work, she altered the Kentucky marriage licenses to remove her name. The couples questioned the legal validity of altered licenses, which spurred on a second round of litigation. While those proceedings were underway, the Governor of Kentucky at the time, Steve Beshear, intervened to confirm the validity of the licenses.
Ultimately, the Court found that Kim Davis had violated the same-sex couples' rights, equating her actions to weaponizing her right to religious freedom, writing that she “[c]annot use her own constitutional rights as a shield to violate the constitutional rights of others while performing her duties as an elected official."
Subsequent Civil Action
Federal juries finally heard evidence on damages for two of the couples who were denied marriage licenses in 2015. The results were mixed. David Ermold and David Moore sued Davis in Ernold vs. Davis. In a separate lawsuit, James Yates and Will Smith sued Davis in Yates vs. Davis. The Jury that heard Ernold vs. Davis awarded them each $50,000, the full amount requested. However, in a move that shows how unpredictable juries can be, the federal jury for Yates vs. Davis awarded no damages to the plaintiffs.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in both cases have spoken out about their disappointment that the Yates case returned no damages, despite the finding that their constitutional rights had been violated.
Her Side of the Story
Davis' attorneys argue that Davis should not be liable for damages because she “was entitled to a religious accommodation from issuing marriage licenses under her name and authority that conflict with her religious beliefs." Attorneys for Davis claim that they, “look forward to appealing this decision and taking this case to the U.S. Supreme Court" where, “Kim Davis will argue for religious freedom and also argue that Obergefell should be overturned. Three of the five justices in the Obergrefell majority are no longer on the Court."
In 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear an appeal from Davis' lawyer, so this may be the end of her legal road, but if her attorney's press release is to be believed, she isn't done looking for trouble.
- LGBTQ+ Legal Resource Hub (FindLaw's Learn About the Law)
- Human Right Vs. Legal Right: Lessons From the Pope, Kim Davis (FindLaw's Blog Archive)
- Same Sex Adoption Cases (FindLaw's Learn About the Law)
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.