ASHLAND, Ky. — A defiant county clerk rejected a proposal that would have allowed her deputies to grant same-sex marriage licenses, hours after she was sent to jail by a federal judge for disobeying a court order.
Through her lawyer, the clerk, Kim Davis of Rowan County, said she would not agree to allow the licenses to be issued under her authority as county clerk. Had she consented, the judge would have considered releasing her from custody.
Five of the six deputies told Judge David L. Bunning of Federal District Court that they would issue the licenses, though some of them said they would do so reluctantly. The lone holdout was Ms. Davis’s son, Nathan.
Ms. Davis, a Democrat, had argued that the Supreme Court order that she issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples infringed upon her religious beliefs and liberties. But after a hearing, Judge Bunning said that “her good faith belief is simply not a viable defense,” and ordered Ms. Davis to jail.
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Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk of courts, shut her office door after denying a marriage license to a same-sex couple in Morehead, Ky., on Wednesday.Kentucky Clerk Who Said ‘No’ to Gay Couples Won’t Be Alone in CourtSEPT. 2, 2015
Same-sex marriage supporters, left, and opponents, right, faced off Tuesday at the Rowan County Courthouse in Morehead, Ky.Kentucky Clerk Denies Same-Sex Marriage Licenses, Defying CourtSEPT. 1, 2015
Kim Davis, an elected clerk, at work in Rowan County, Ky.Supreme Court Says Kentucky Clerk Must Let Gay Couples Marry AUG. 31, 2015
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“The court cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order,” said Judge Bunning, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. “If you give people the opportunity to choose which orders they follow, that’s what potentially causes problems.”
“I myself have genuinely held religious beliefs,” the judge said, but “I took an oath.” He noted: “Mrs. Davis took an oath. Oaths mean things.”
The clerk’s stance has put her at the center of political storm that has divided the country.
The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said he had not discussed the developments with President Obama. But he said Ms. Davis should not defy the Supreme Court.
“Every public official is subject to the rule of law,” Mr. Earnest said. “No one is above the law. That applies to the president of the United States and it applies to the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, as well.”
Rand Paul, the Republican presidential candidate and a senator from Kentucky, said it was “absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberties.”
Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, another Republican candidate, said the jailing of Ms. David “removes all doubt of the criminalization of Christianity in our country.”
“We must defend religious liberty and never surrender to judicial tyranny,” Mr. Huckabee said, adding that “the Supreme Court is not the Supreme branch and it’s certainly not the Supreme Being.”
Judge Bunning’s ruling also drew sharp condemnation from one of Ms. Davis’s lawyers, Roger Gannam.
“Today, for the first time in history, an American citizen has been incarcerated for having the belief of conscience that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, and she’s been ordered to stay there until she’s willing to change her mind, until she’s willing to change her conscience about what that belief is,” he said. “This is unprecedented in American law.”
But a lawyer for the couples who sued, William Sharp, said the ruling signaled that “religious liberty is not a sword with which government, through its employees, may impose particular religious views on others.”
Two couples who had previously been denied licenses by Ms. Davis’s office said they would seek the licenses on Friday.
Earlier Ms. Davis, an Apostolic Christian, tearfully testified that she had not hesitated to follow her religious beliefs and defy the courts. “I didn’t have to think about it,” she said. “There was no choice there.”
Ms. Davis was asked how she defined marriage.
“Marriage is between one man and one woman,” she replied, before a lawyer asked her whether she had “the ability to believe marriage is anything else.”
Ms. Davis offered a terse response: “No.”
Later, one of the women who has unsuccessfully sought a marriage license in Rowan County, April Miller, told Judge Bunning that Ms. Davis’s stand “marginalizes us again.”
Judge Bunning left little doubt about his thinking, and said Ms. Davis’s explanation for disobeying his order was “simply insufficient.”
“It’s not physically impossible for her to issue the licenses,” he said. “She’s choosing not to.”
Lawyers for the same-sex couples seeking licenses had asked Judge Bunning to fine Ms. Davis and not send her to jail, but the judge said he thought that a fine would not be enough to prompt the clerk’s compliance.
The hearing Thursday was the first since the Supreme Court on Monday turned down Ms. Davis’s appeal of an Aug. 12 ruling by Judge Bunning directing her to issue marriage licenses. The justices’ decision was expected to clear the way for same-sex marriages in Rowan County. But on Tuesday, the clerk and her employees again refused to issue licenses in Morehead, the seat of Rowan County.
Within hours lawyers for the couples who had initially sued Ms. Davis asked Judge Bunning to hold her in contempt.
Legal experts said it was uncertain how long Ms. Davis could kept in jail.
“Civil contempt is not supposed to be punitive, it’s supposed to coerce the person to obey the judge’s order,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Once she promises to obey, or once the judge determines that more jail time will not encourage her to obey, they’ll let her out. But she could be in there for a year, it’s conceivable. Judges really don’t like it when people disobey their order.”
The standoff in Kentucky, many law professors said, is reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights battles, with Ms. Davis in the role of George C. Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to block two black students from registering.
“In a way, she’s out George Wallace-ing George Wallace,” said Howard M. Wasserman, a law professor at Florida International University. “It does now feel like the civil rights era, with people ignoring court orders, taking a stand and being held in contempt.”
Supporters and opponents of Ms. Davis gathered outside the federal courthouse here Thursday hours before court began. One man waved a rainbow flag — a symbol of the gay rights movement — while another clutched a flag that said, “Liberty.”
“We’re supporters of the rule of the law,” said David Wills, a computer programmer from West Virginia who was first in line and said he had arrived at 4 a.m. for a hearing scheduled to begin seven hours later. “It’s just really important to me that people be treated equally, fairly.”
Ms. Davis’s supporters, gathered ahead of a hearing they called critical to protecting religious liberty in Kentucky and elsewhere.
“They’re taking rights away from Christians,” Danny Kinder, a 73-year-old retiree from Morehead, said of the courts. “They’ve overstepped their bounds.”
“I’ve been praying about it, and we just have to turn it over to the Lord,” he said. “She has got to stand for what she believes, and I have to stand for what I believe, and I’m behind her 100 percent.”
Correction: September 3, 2015
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated Kim Davis’s political affiliation. She is a Democrat, not a Republican.