Four couples sued Rowan County and its clerk, Kim Davis, on Thursday for refusing to issue marriage licenses because of Davis' religious objections to the U.S. Supreme Court decision a week ago legalizing same-sex marriage.
"Each and every plaintiff is a resident of Rowan County," the couples said in their lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Ashland. "They live, work, vote and pay taxes in Rowan County. Each and every plaintiff wishes to obtain a marriage license from their home county without having to suffer the indignity of securing a marriage license from another county due to defendants' unlawful and unconstitutional policy."
The couples — two same-sex, two opposite-sex — are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky and several of the Louisville lawyers who successfully persuaded the Supreme Court to strike down Kentucky's gay marriage ban. They seek class-action status, which means the number of plaintiffs, and the financial damages eventually awarded, could grow exponentially if they are successful.
Davis is obligated by law to issue a marriage license to all qualified applicants, which now includes same-sex couples, the plaintiffs said. By "promoting a particular religious belief" at the Rowan County courthouse, Davis has "acted maliciously, with callous disregard for, or with reckless indifference to, the clearly established rights" of the plaintiffs, they said.
Davis, a Democratic county clerk who took office in January, did not return a call Thursday seeking comment. In interviews earlier this week, she said her Christian beliefs prevented her from giving marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite the Supreme Court's ruling, so she no longer would issue a license to anyone.
"I disagree with the way this was all handed down," Davis told the Herald-Leader Monday. "As much as the same-sex couples feel they have a right to marry, I feel the institution of marriage was ordained by God in the Bible. It's a hard place to find yourself, especially in a situation like mine. But I have to do what I think is right for my conscience."
A few other county clerks around Kentucky likewise refused to issue marriage licenses this week, despite a letter from Gov. Steve Beshear instructing them to do their duty regardless of their personal feelings about the Supreme Court decision. But in most of the state, including the cities of Lexington and Louisville, same-sex couples received marriage licenses with little to no delay.
In Kentucky, it's a Class A misdemeanor — first-degree official misconduct — for elected officials to refuse to perform the duties of their office.
About 75 Rowan County residents protested in favor of marriage equality outside Davis' Morehead office on Tuesday. Josh Akers, who helped organize the protest, said he and his neighbors hoped to avoid bringing a lawsuit. But Davis would not budge from her position, and nobody else seemed ready to intervene, Akers said.
"We have exhausted just about every channel of government that we know of," Akers said. "We have talked to the governor, we have talked to the attorney general, we have talked to the county judge-executive, we have talked to the county attorney. But we are told that because she is an elected official, she is essentially independent and above the law unless somebody sues her."
The plaintiffs, all of whom say they were denied marriage licenses this week, are:
■ April Miller and Karen Ann Roberts, same-sex partners for 11 years, who have a daughter.
■ Shantel Burke and Stephen Napier, opposite-sex partners for three years, who have a child.
■ L. Aaron Skaggs and Barry W. Spartman, same-sex partners for 21 years.
■ Jody Fernandez and Kevin Holloway, opposite-sex partners who have lived together in Rowan County since 2008.
The couples are suing Davis individually as well as in her official capacity as county clerk. If the suit can prove "unlawful conduct" on her part, Davis might be required to pay damages out of her own pocket, rather than count on Rowan County taxpayers and the county's insurance policy to cover the costs, said Bill Sharp, legal director of the Kentucky ACLU.