Supreme Court turns away appeal from ex-Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis

Washington — The Supreme Court on Monday turned away an appeal from Kim Davis, a former Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples under her name because of her religious beliefs, letting stand a lower court ruling allowing a lawsuit filed against her to proceed.

Davis rose to attention in 2015 when she, while working as the clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, stopped issuing marriage licenses due to her religious objections to same-sex marriage. Davis, a devout Christian, was sued over her refusal to issue the licenses and subsequently jailed after she defied a judge’s order to issue them.

Davis sought to have the case against her dismissed, arguing she was shielded from civil lawsuits under a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, but the lower courts declined to grant her request and allowed the dispute to move forward.

The protracted legal battle involving Davis occurred against the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the court ruled same-sex couples have the right to marry.

Although Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the court’s decision not to take up the dispute, in a scathing statement joined by Justice Samuel Alito, he criticized the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision and said it “bypassed the democratic process” and left people with religious objections to same-sex marriage “in the lurch.”

“Davis may have been one of the first victims of this Court’s cavalier treatment of religion in its Obergefell decision, but she will not be the last,” Thomas wrote. “Due to Obergefell, those with sincerely held religious beliefs concerning marriage will find it increasingly difficult to participate in society without running afoul of Obergefell and its effect on other antidiscrimination laws.”

Thomas said the high court’s 2015 decision “enables courts and governments to brand religious adherents who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman as bigots, making their religious liberty concerns that much easier to dismiss.”

“This petition provides a stark reminder of the consequences of Obergefell,” Thomas wrote. “By choosing to privilege a novel constitutional right over the religious liberty interests explicitly protected in the First Amendment, and by doing so undemocratically, the court has created a problem that only it can fix.”

The Supreme Court began its new term Monday with a pair of oral arguments that are being held remotely and by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic. The court currently has just eight members following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month, and Chief Justice John Roberts convened the new term with brief remarks about his late colleague, calling her “contributions as advocate, jurist and citizen are immeasurable.”

“We at the court will remember her as a dear friend and a treasured colleague,” he said. 

Casting a shadow over the court’s term is the bruising battle to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to succeed Ginsburg on the high court and the November presidential election, as President Trump has suggested its outcome could be decided by the justices.