Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, seemed set to become a full-fledged right-wing martyr/saint. Then a funny thing happened on the way to her canonization.
Last week, Davis was jailed for contempt of court. She not only refused to follow a federal court order to issue licenses to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodge , but forbade her deputies to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Davis wasn’t satisfied with merely bringing her religious beliefs to the workplace. She demanded that everyone who worked under her had to follow her religious beliefs, too.
Davis told U.S. District Court Judge David Bunning that she would continue to defy his order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and even rejected a deal that would have allowed her to avoid jail if she’d let her deputies issue licenses to same-sex couples. Though he also disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling, Bunning had little choice but to send Davis to jail for contempt. Like it or not, marriage equality is law. Davis, as an elected official of the state of Kentucky, is duty bound to uphold the law — or suffer the consequences.
Davis seemed to almost want to go to jail. Right-wing extremists who howled that Christians would be hauled off to jail for opposing marriage equality could point to Davis’ incarceration as proof. Davis was inevitably compared to civil rights icon Rosa Parks. All that seemed left for Davis to do was cash in on crowdfunding donations, and wait for a good deal, while Fox News started a “Free Kim Davis” countdown. GOP presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced that they would visit Davis in jail, starting what would have become a pilgrimage for GOP candidates.
Then something interesting happened. First, Davis lost her ticket to right-wing martyrdom, when she regained her freedom. Judge Bunning ordered Davis released from jail on Tuesday, before Huckabee or Cruz made their planned visits to Davis’ jail cell. Running ordered Davis’ release, with a caveat that she not interfere with deputies in her office who are issuing licenses to same-sex couples, or “appropriate sanctions will be considered.”
Meanwhile, cracks appeared in what would have been a solid wall of conservative support for Davis just a few years ago.
- A panel of legal experts on Fox News’ “Happening Now” denounced Davis’ attorney, Mat Staver, as “ridiculously stupid” for claiming that the Supreme Court had no constitutional authority to strike down same-sex marriage bans. “She can still practice her faith,” Fox News host Gregg Jarrett said. “Just not on the job in a way that interferes with the legal rights of the citizens she serves.”
- Washington Post columnist and former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush Michael Gerson declared, “Kim Davis is no Rosa Parks.” Gerson wrote that people like Davis “are doing great harm to the cause of religious liberty and to the reputation of their faith.” Gerson also argued, “there is no serious case to be made for the right of public officials to break laws they don’t agree with, even for religious reasons.”
- On “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace,” conservative author and columnist George Will compared Davis to segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace. (Though not before claiming President Obama’s for encouraging Davis’ “lawlessness.”: “People saying well, I can do whatever I wish. But surely it is a wholesome rule that executives should obey legitimate court orders. That’s true whether your name is Orval Faubus, the Democratic governor of Arkansas in the 1950s or George Wallace, the democratic governor of Alabama in the ’60s. Kim Davis, the Democratic county clerk in Kentucky.”
- The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson said Davis went too far in refusing to issue licenses, and barring her deputies from doing so.
- Republican presidential candidates are somewhat split on support for Davis. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, and Rick Santorum are squarely in the pro-Davis camp. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump issued vague, middle-of-the-road statements that sounded like attempts to have it both ways. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Carly Fiorina, and Ohio governor John Kasich all said Davis swore to uphold the law, and should do so or resign.
Have Fox News and other right-wingers suddenly evolved? Of course not. They’ve just seen the writing on the wall.
Before and after the Obergefell decision, right-wingers claimed that hundreds of Kim Davises would be dragged off to jail. It hasn’t happened. For all the attention Davis’ case has received, the bigger story is how little Davis-style resistance to marriage equality has occurred. The jails are not overflowing with recalcitrant, Christian county clerks. The overwhelming majority are following the law, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Davis isn’t just a “lone-wolf scofflaw,” as the Columbia Journalism Review’s David Uberti put it; she’s an unsympathetic one. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll shows that just 26 percent of Americans think an elected official like Davis should be able to ignore a federal court ruling she disagrees with for religious reasons. Sixty-six percent think that Davis and elected officials like her should carry out the law as the Court has interpreted it.
Conservative institutions like Fox News and the Heritage Foundation, and individuals like Michael Gerson and George Will, haven’t had a sudden change of heart on marriage equality. They correctly see the polls concerning Davis case as further evidence that the cultural landscape has shifted unalterably under their feet. They see that Davis is out on a very thin limb, are reluctant to join her and her supporters on it.
The anti-Davis narrative on the right continues. Apparently Fox News anchor Shepard Smith just couldn't take it anymore. Smith interrupted Fox News' coverage of Kim Davis' post-jail press conference to slam Davis' refusal to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples as a publicity stunt.
“Haters are gonna hate. We thought what this woman wanted was an accommodation, which they’ve now granted her, something that worked for everybody,” Smith said. “But it’s not what [Kim Davis and her attorney] want.”
Smith went on to suggest that Davis has refused compromises, like allowing her deputies to issue licenses to same-sex couples, in order to stay in the news.
“This is what they want, what you’re hearing now, and this what they’re going to get: stirred-up argument and a couple of days in the news cycle,” he said.
This is not Smith's first time as the voice of reason on Fox.
The martyr bit still isn't working for Kim Davis. According to a new HuffingtonPost/YouGov poll, a majority of the public — 56 percent — support Bunning's decision to jail Davis for contempt of court.
Sixty-five percent said Davis should resign her office, while 23 percent said she should stay in office and continue to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and 4 percent said she should remain in office and issue marriage licenses to all who are legally entitled to one.