MOREHEAD -- Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples here, is the best known of them, at least for now.
But there is also Charlie Smoak, a former magistrate in Moore County, North Carolina. And Nick Williams, a probate judge in Washington County, Alabama. And Molly Criner, a clerk in Irion County, Texas, who has declared that “natural marriage cannot be redefined by government.” All of them have argued that as government employees, they should not be required to recognize same-sex marriage, citing religious objections. And all have turned, for representation, to Liberty Counsel, a legal nonprofit that has been on the front lines of the same-sex marriage fight for roughly two decades.
In some ways, these are tough times for the group, based in Orlando, Florida, which has seen the courts, and Americans in general, warm to the idea of same-sex nuptials. But by offering pro bono counsel to defiant Christian public officials, the self-described legal “ministry” finds itself in demand by social conservatives in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that, for the first time, legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
“I think they’re doing excellent work - they’re standing up to what we see is a new tyranny of judicial supremacy,” said Brian S. Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, another group that opposes same-sex unions.
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Despite the Supreme Court’s landmark 5-4 ruling in the same-sex marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges, social conservatives have not given up the fight. With Republican allies in state legislatures, they have been promoting measures that they say would help defend the religious rights of local government officials who oppose such unions.
Liberty Counsel has taken the lead in representing a number of public officials who have refused to recognize the right to same-sex wedlock.
In May, it filed a lawsuit on behalf of a handful of county magistrates in North Carolina, including Smoak, and argued that they should be exempted from performing same-sex marriages on religious grounds. The suit was withdrawn when the Republican-controlled legislature overrode a veto by the state’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, and enacted a law allowing them to refuse to aid such unions.
The group announced in July that it was representing Criner, the clerk in rural Irion County, Texas, who has also refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Mathew D. Staver, founding member and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said that no legal action had been filed thus far, and it is unclear whether gay couples have come forward in the rural county to request a marriage license. (Criner could not be reached for comment Wednesday.)
In Alabama, Liberty Counsel has for months backed some probate judges who balked at issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and the group in July argued to the state Supreme Court that Alabama did not have to comply with the Obergefell decision. It noted that the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to follow the high court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision.
As of mid-August, 11 Alabama counties were refusing to issue marriage licenses to all couples.
In an interview Wednesday, Staver, who is also a former dean of the law school at Liberty University, which was founded by Jerry Falwell, said that the Obergefell decision forced people “to accept and to promote same-sex marriage.” He added, “Kim Davis is an example of that, in that she’s being asked to put her name on a license that is directly against her religious convictions.” Legal experts say the chances of a courtroom victory appear slim for Davis, an Apostolic Christian who has fought in federal court to protect what her supporters view as her right to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Davis is to appear Thursday before a federal judge, who could hold her in contempt for defying the judiciary.
Even if it is unsuccessful, Davis’ case may benefit the conservative cause in other ways, said Jennifer C. Pizer, the law and policy project director for Lambda Legal, a gay rights group. Losing such cases, Pizer said, could have the effect of persuading legislatures that rules should be changed to accommodate such dissenters.“There may be an effort here to create martyrs,” she said.
Davis garnered national attention Tuesday when she ignored court rulings and denied marriages licenses to gay couples. On Wednesday, Davis rejected an gay couple from Ohio when they, too, sought a marriage license.
“My roots are all from Kentucky, and from the get-go, I said, ‘When all the states are legalized, we will come to this state to be married, where my parents were married,’” one of the men, Robbie Blankenship, said as his partner, Jesse Cruz, looked on in the courthouse.
Ahead of Thursday’s hearing in Ashland, Davis’ critics asked that she be fined, but not jailed for her defiance. In a filing on Wednesday, her Liberty Counsel lawyers asked the judge, David L. Bunning, of the U.S. District Court, to resist calls to hold her in contempt and to issue an injunction that would allow her to avoid issuing licenses while the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers a lawsuit against Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Steven L. Beshear On Wednesday afternoon, Davis said she was “very appreciative” of Liberty Counsel’s aid, but otherwise declined to comment.
Liberty Counsel, founded by Staver in 1989, has roughly 10 full-time lawyers, he said, and has taken up a number of causes dear to evangelical Christians over the years, including cases determining rules for protesters at abortion clinics, and the right of students to post religious-themed fliers in public schools.
Same-sex marriage has been a major theme. Staver has stated that homosexuality is “against God’s will” and “rooted in fractured emotions.” The Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, has criticized Liberty Counsel for opposing legislation protecting LGBT people from workplace discrimination, and for defending Scott Lively, an American evangelist. In a federal lawsuit, a Ugandan gay rights group has accused Lively of inciting the prosecution of gay people in that country.
But clients like Williams, in Alabama, have nothing but praise for the group.
“They don’t believe in backing down; they’re not going to back down, and a lot of your attorneys who practice in federal court, they’d just say, ‘Forget it,’” Williams said. “It takes a firm like Liberty that still believes the Supreme Court had no right to rule.” He added: “When you’re elected, you don’t check your beliefs at the door. If you’re a true believer, you can’t separate that from who you are. Liberty gets that.”