ROWAN COUNTY, Ky. (LEX 18) — A federal judge has ruled in favor of two same-sex couples who claimed former Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis violated their constitutional rights.
U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning of the Eastern District of Kentucky granted summary judgment in a civil lawsuit that the two couples, David Ermold and David Moore, and James Yates and Will Smith, filed against Davis. The ruling settles whether their constitutional rights were violated without going to trial. It's unclear, though, if Davis will be held liable for the thousands of dollars in legal fees accrued since 2015.
Bunning denied Davis's request for summary judgment on the question of damages. The plaintiffs are requesting compensatory and punitive damages, pre and post-judgment interest, costs, and attorneys' fees.
Shortly after the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court ruling granted same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide, Davis stopped issuing all marriage licenses due to her religious beliefs. That led to lawsuits against her, and a judge ordered Davis to issue the licenses. She spent five days in jail for being found in contempt of court after refusing to do so.
Davis had argued that a legal doctrine called qualified immunity shielded her from being held liable, the plaintiffs argued that Davis had violated their constitutional rights and their right to marry was clearly established at the time of Davis's violation, and therefore, Davis was not entitled to qualified immunity.
The court said her decision not to issue marriage licenses "further illustrates that she knowingly violated the law." The ruling also states "Davis 'chose to stand for what [she] believe[s] in over what was contrary to that'—the law."
The judge's ruling means "claims against her in her individual capacity" can move forward. The U.S. Supreme Court chose not to take up her appeal in the case.
In a statement, the Liberty Counsel said the case "now clearly presents the free exercise defense" and could be a Supreme Court issue.
"Kim Davis is entitled to protection to an accommodation based on her sincere religious belief," Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said. "This case raises serious First Amendment free exercise of religion claims and has a high potential of reaching the Supreme Court."
A status conference is scheduled to be held by telephone on April 1.
Davis, a Republican, ultimately lost her bid for reelection in 2018. Democrat Elwood Caudill Jr. is now the county's clerk.