MOREHEAD — James Yates and William Smith Jr. paid $35.50 and filled out paperwork early Friday to become the first couple to get a marriage license in Rowan County since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage June 26. More couples soon followed.
With Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in jail on civil contempt charges for defying a judge's order to resume issuing licenses, deputy clerk Brian Mason ended the office's two-month license ban by politely serving Yates and Smith on Friday, even congratulating them and shaking their hands afterward.
Hours later, however, attorneys for Davis said the marriage licenses issued by her office Friday were void because only Davis has the authority to authorize a marriage license, and she refuses to do so.
"They are not being issued under the authority of the Rowan County clerk's office. They are not worth the paper that they are written on," said attorney Mat Staver after meeting with Davis in the Carter County jail in Grayson.
Rowan County Attorney Cecil Watkins previously dismissed that argument, saying deputy clerks can issue valid marriage licenses without their boss's approval.
Marriage equality protesters shouted "Love won!" outside the Rowan County courthouse as Yates and Smith emerged. Across the sidewalk, a crowd of people who support Kim Davis stood mutely, save for one man screaming quotes from the Bible about Sodom and Gomorrah.
Yates and Smith said they were overwhelmed by the moment, and now they need to set a wedding date. Together since 2006, they are among the local couples who sued Davis for a marriage license after she repeatedly turned them away.
"This is pretty — uh — unusual for us," said Smith, looking dazed as he elbowed his way through dozens of reporters from around the country and an equal number of well-wishing supporters.
A second couple, Michael and Timothy Long, followed about an hour later, though they were called "perverts" by a supporter of Davis who had made his way inside the clerk's office. An hour after that, it was April Miller and Karen Roberts.
"I just never thought it would happen," Timothy Long said. "We waited for years and years and years. We had a commitment ceremony in 2008, thinking, you know, this is the best we've got, so let's go with it. And now we're afforded the opportunity to be like everyone else."
U.S. District Judge David Bunning ordered Davis on Aug. 12 to resume issuing marriage licenses, saying that her personal religious objection to same-sex marriage did not supersede her public duty to issue marriage licenses. He jailed her for contempt Thursday because she refused to comply.
Davis, an Apostolic Christian, was elected county clerk last fall. She is expected to remain in the Carter County jail until she agrees to obey Bunning's order or until Bunning changes his mind.
Staver, Davis' attorney, said he will file legal actions to appeal the contempt finding and to have the clerk released from jail, although he could not predict how long this might take.
Davis never expected to find herself behind bars in an orange jumpsuit, Staver said, but she "slept well last night. She slept with a very good conscience."
Outside the Rowan County courthouse Friday, Davis' husband, Joe, said he spoke to his wife by telephone late Thursday, and he reported "she's in good spirits."
"She will stay in there for however long it takes," Joe Davis said. "She will not back down. She'll never resign. Nope."
Joe Davis called Bunning a "coward" and a "bully" for not respecting his wife's religious beliefs. He also blamed Gov. Steve Beshear for not calling the legislature into special session to amend the state's marriage laws to protect Kim Davis — and other county clerks — from having to issue marriage licenses they find personally objectionable.
"We don't hate nobody," Joe Davis said. Gesturing to marriage-equality demonstrators nearby, he said, "We just want the same rights they have. They say, 'We're gonna make you accept us whether you want to or not.' Well, we don't want all this forced on us."
Rowan County Judge-Executive Walter "Doc" Blevins passively watched the crowds outside his courthouse chanting and singing, and the news crews doing live stand-ups, and said he wished "it would all end soon."
"The portrayal of our community from all of this has not been entirely flattering, frankly," Blevins said. "We'd rather be known for our beauty and Cave Run Lake and our university, not for this."
"If Kim will just agree to come back and do her duty, then she would get out of jail," Blevins said. "The keys to her cell are in her own hands. But I don't think she's going to back down."