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A federal judge has ruled that Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who made national headlines when she went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, does not have to pay legal fees for the couples who were forced to sue her.
Two same-sex couples and two opposite-sex couples sued Davis after she refused to issue, and barred her deputies from issuing, any marriage licenses in Rowan County. Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, who sued Davis on behalf of the four couples, had asked the court to award them $233,000 in legal fees and costs. Davis’ lawyers, with the right-wing legal firm Liberty Counsel, asked the court to deny that request.
On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Edward B. Atkins signed an order saying that because the dispute over marriage licenses in which Davis was involved had been resolved by the legislature, rather than the courts, the four couples weren’t considered “prevailing parties,” and could not compel Davis to pay their legal fees.
Liberty Counsel celebrated Atkins’ ruling in a statement.
“The ACLU and others still want to punish Kim Davis for daring to take a stand for religious liberty, but today the court recognized that the ACLU does not deserve to get paid for its bullying,” said Horatio Mihet, Liberty Counsel’s vice president of legal affairs and chief litigation counsel. “Kim Davis never violated her conscience, and she still has her job and her freedom — that is a win for Kim and for all Americans who want to perform public service without being forced to compromise their religious liberties.”
But the ACLU of Kentucky has indicated it does not believe the fight to hold Davis responsible for her actions, which necessitated the lawsuit, was over.
“We respectfully disagree with the preliminary recommendation issued by Magistrate Judge Atkins regarding the fees issue, and we will file our objections to that recommendation within two weeks explaining our bases for doing so,” William Sharp, the group’s legal director, said in a statement. “Then, once U.S. District Court Judge Bunning issues his final ruling on the issue, our clients will re-evaluate their options at that time.”
Following the legalization of same-sex marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court, Davis stopped issuing marriage licenses to all qualified couples in Rowan County, regardless of sexual orientation, for fear of being accused of discriminating against same-sex couples. Davis’ primary objection to issuing the licenses was that, on Kentucky’s past license form, the name of the county clerk was listed as a matter of public record, even if a deputy was the one to issue the license. Davis maintained that allowing her name on a same-sex couple’s marriage license would constitute an “endorsement” of homosexuality, in violation of her religious beliefs.
Davis refused to issue the licenses and was held in contempt, with U.S. District Judge David Bunning ruling that she had to allow her deputies to issue marriage licenses to all qualified couples. But Davis continued to resist the court’s orders.
Eventually, the dispute was resolved following the 2015 gubernatorial election, when Gov. Matt Bevin promised to remove county clerk’s names from all Kentucky marriage licenses. Bevin, a Republican who used Davis as a political prop to garner votes from social conservatives in traditionally Democratic areas of the state, urged the Republican-led Senate and the then-Democratic controlled House of Representatives to approve such a measure.
Once the county clerks’ names were removed, Davis’ objections, and the ACLU’s lawsuit to force her office to issue licenses, were ruled moot and Davis’ appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was dismissed.