Metro Weekly

Jury Awards $100,000 to Gay Couple Rejected by Kim Davis

A jury has awarded $100,000 to a same-sex couple who were refused a marriage license in 2015 by then-Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis.

Kim Davis mugshot – Original photo: Carter County Detention Center

A federal jury has awarded $100,000 to a gay couple in Kentucky who sued former Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis for denying them a marriage license.

Davis grabbed international attention after she refused, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage, to violate her personal religious beliefs opposing homosexuality by issuing licenses to same-sex couples.

She also barred her staff from issuing licenses because she did not want her name or title to appear on the license.

Afraid of being found guilty of discriminating against same-sex couples, Davis directed her staff to refuse to issue licenses to any couple, including opposite-sex couples, instead telling applicants to apply for licenses elsewhere.

Due to her refusal to change the policy, U.S. District Judge David Bunning, of the Eastern District of Kentucky, ordered Davis to serve time in jail for contempt of court.

After five days in jail, she was released, and agreed not to block her deputy clerks from issuing licenses that had been edited to remove her name and title — although both she and her deputy raised concerns about the validity of such licenses.

Kentucky lawmakers later passed a law to change rules that removed county clerks’ names from marriage licenses. 

Several couples who had been turned away by Davis’s office during the summer of 2015 subsequently sued her, arguing that she had violated their constitutional rights. In one case, the state of Kentucky had to pay $225,000 to attorneys representing eight plaintiffs who had sued her, because Davis’s authority to issue licenses came from the state.

Last year, Bunning ruled that Davis had violated the constitutional rights of David Ermold and David Moore, and James Yates and Will Smith, when she denied them marriage licenses. Ermold and Moore were turned away three times before a deputy clerk finally issued them a license in September 2015, while Yates and Smith were turned away five times before receiving a license, reports the Associated Press.

In his ruling, Bunning found that Davis, who since lost re-election in 2018, “cannot use her own constitutional rights as a shield to violate the constitutional rights of others while performing her duties as an elected official.”

This past week, trials were held to determine whether Davis would be liable and what amount she’d have to pay in damages to the two couples. She argued that, under a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, she is protected from being sued for actions she took in her official capacity.

At trial, Ermold, who previously taught at the University of Pikeville and Morehead State University, was emotional, describing the stress and anxiety he experienced after being denied a license. He accused Davis of “humiliating us in public,” according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Ermold recounted that the first time he and Moore went to get a license and Davis turned them away, Moore told the clerk it was likely that she had issued licenses to murderers, rapists, and pedophiles. He claimed Davis said that as long as those people were straight, that was okay. 

“You truly feel like you’re less than a person,” Moore testified in his own right of the reaction to being rejected for a license.

Ermold also claimed that Davis’s denial of the licenses further fueled bias against gay people in the local community. People opposed to same-sex marriage yelled anti-gay slurs at the couples who requested marriage licenses, and Ermold said he feared for his and Moore’s personal safety. He claims he still fears that someone will burn his house or harm his animals. “I live in a perpetual state of fear,” he said.

Smith — a survivor of childhood abuse who had previously been diagnosed with PTSD, bipolar disorder, and social anxiety prior to 2015 — claimed he had been stable before being turned away by Davis. He testified that he became depressed, suffered panic attacks, and was forced to change his medication and go to therapy more often.

But Horatio Mihet, an attorney for Davis affiliated with the right-wing legal firm Liberty Counsel, argued that the couples suing Davis never suffered financial damages, accusing them of seeking “vengeance and retribution” against her. 

Mohet claimed that Davis faced condemnation, slurs, and even threats stemming from her refusal to violate her religious beliefs, and argued that she had already been punished by serving time in jail for contempt of court.

Mihet argued before jurors that Smith and Ermold, respectively, had never offered any medical evidence to support their claims that Davis’s actions harmed their mental or emotional well-being. He also argued that the four had videotaped their encounters with Davis and her deputies and given media interviews about the controversy, arguing that it was their own actions, and not those of Davis, that caused them public embarrassment.

Davis testified that she was not trying to humiliate the same-sex couples seeking licenses, but felt that her sincerely held religious beliefs would not permit her to allow a license with her name and title to be issued to a same-sex couple.

“For me, it was a heaven or hell issue,” she said.

On Wednesday, after two-and-a-half hours of deliberation, the trial jury awarded David Ermold and David Moore each $50,000, but did not award damages to Yates and Smith.

In a press release, Davis’s attorneys with Liberty Counsel indicated they intended to appeal the decision.

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