Kentuckians are evenly divided over what the General Assembly should do about Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis and the state's marriage license system when it convenes in January, according to the statewide Bluegrass Poll.
Forty-six percent of voters said the legislature should impeach Davis and remove her from office for disobeying a judge's order to resume issuing marriage licenses. Davis, an Apostolic Christian, said she was religiously opposed to gay marriage and could not in good conscience authorize a license for same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage in June.
But 47 percent of voters said the legislature should let Davis continue her four-year term, which began in January. Seven percent said they were not sure. Impeachment by the legislature is the only civil procedure available to remove Davis, who was locally elected.
On another question, 34 percent said the legislature should not change state laws on marriage licensing to accommodate Davis and other county clerks with religious objections. However, 31 percent said lawmakers should remove county clerks from the process by creating an online license application; 29 percent said clerks should be allowed to take their names off licenses if they wish; and 5 percent said they were not sure.
Voters who are younger, better educated and registered Democrats tended to be more critical of Davis and attempts to change the marriage licensing process than voters who are older, less educated and registered Republicans.
For example, 70 percent of registered Republicans said the legislature should allow Davis to stay in office and 60 percent of Democrats said lawmakers should remove her.
Similarly, rural voters more strongly support Davis, while a clear majority of voters in the congressional districts around the cities of Louisville and Lexington said she should be removed from office.
"There's not a lot of consensus out there, is there?" said state Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, a co-sponsor of one of several pre-filed bills about marriage awaiting the legislature's attention in 2016.
Davis did not return a call Thursday seeking comment. One of her attorneys at Liberty Counsel, a religious advocacy group, said it's unlikely Kentucky lawmakers will move against the clerk.
"I think a lot of people misunderstand what she's requesting," said attorney Mat Staver. "She simply doesn't want her name and her office on the licenses. They're saying she's not willing to do her job, and that's not true."
SurveyUSA conducted the Bluegrass Poll from Friday through Monday for the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville. The survey asked 1,016 registered voters their opinions about last summer's marriage license controversy in Rowan County. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Davis' legal case is pending. Same-sex and opposite-sex couples sued her in July to demand she resume issuing marriage licenses. U.S. District Judge David Bunning jailed her because she refused to comply with his order, siding with the couples. Bunning freed Davis five days later after arranging for her deputy clerks to issue licenses in her absence and ordering her to not interfere.
Davis immediately altered her office's marriage licenses by deleting her name and title, and requiring her deputies to sign as notaries public, not as deputy clerk. Each license now states, "Pursuant to federal court order" and omits any reference to Rowan County.
The couples are protesting to Bunning, who has given lawyers for Gov. Steve Beshear until next month to say whether the state considers the altered licenses to be valid. Meanwhile, some Rowan County couples have obtained the altered licenses and are going ahead with their weddings, hoping for the best.
David Ermold, one of the local residents who sued Davis for a license, plans to marry his fiancé, David Moore, on Saturday in Morehead.
"I think that she needs to be removed. But I don't think the Kentucky legislature is going to do it," Ermold said.
He said he regretted that Attorney General Jack Conway refused in September to appoint a special prosecutor to decide whether Davis should face a criminal charge of official misconduct for failing to perform her public duties. Rowan County Attorney Cecil Watkins asked Conway to pursue the case after a local couple complained that Davis repeatedly turned them away when they asked for a license.
"That was the only way we were going to get her out of office, realistically, is by someone finding her guilty of these misdemeanors she's committing by not doing her job," Ermold said.
At least four "religious liberty" bills have been pre-filed for the 2016 General Assembly to address the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision. Some would allow county clerks to refuse to issue licenses; others would reiterate that ministers, judges or other officiants may refuse to solemnize same-sex marriages.
The bill Tipton is co-sponsoring would transfer the duties for issuing marriage licenses from county clerks to the Kentucky Registrar of Vital Statistics in Frankfort, which presently handles birth and death certificates. Details need to be worked out, Tipton said, but couples might download a marriage license from a state website and then mail it, completed and signed, to the state agency after the wedding.
"The clerks I've spoken to, while they understand they have a legal obligation, there is a degree of discomfort with it because they do have their own personal opinions on the subject of marriage," Tipton said.
The Kentucky County Clerks Association will meet next month in Lexington, and it hopes to emerge with a proposal for the legislature, said Leslie County Clerk James Lewis, an officer with the group. Most of the state's 120 county clerks quickly complied with the Supreme Court decisions. Davis and two others announced they would not.
"The general consensus is, changes need to be made to the form," said Lewis, who issues licenses to opposite-sex and same-sex couples. "The clerks want to do this job. If changes can be made to accommodate clerks who have objections without destroying the standing of these licenses as a vital record that collects important information, then I think we can do it."
But Ermold said it's offensive for state and local officials to treat same-sex couples as second-class citizens whom some understandably might wish to avoid.
"Why change the form or change the process other than for the express purpose of allowing people to discriminate?" Ermold asked. "Let's face it, they're doing all of this solely because some people don't want to deal with same-sex couples, and other people want to accommodate that.
"I'm sure it will all work out in the end. I just wish we didn't have to go through this fight down here. I wish we could have gone down to our county courthouse after finally winning in the Supreme Court and had people, you know, just be happy for us and wish us well."