November 2015 Church & State | People & Events

Controversy has erupted over a meeting Pope Francis had with Rowan County, Ky., Clerk Kim Davis during his September visit to Washington, D.C., with some church officials claiming the event was brief and was not intended to express support for her.

The Rev. Frederico Lombardi “confirmed the meeting, but declined to elaborate on it. He said he ‘did not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no other comments to add,’” The New York Times reported. Lombardi also confirmed the meeting to Buzzfeed News.

The story broke when Inside the Vatican, an independent, conservative Catholic website, published an account of the meeting. In a statement issued shortly thereafter, Liberty Counsel, the Religious Right legal group that is representing Davis, who spent six days in jail for her refusal to allow Rowan County officials to issue marriage licenses to anyone, confirmed the account. The organization asserted that Francis and Davis met while Davis was in Washington to receive an award at the Family Research Council’s annual Values Voter Summit.

Liberty Counsel’s statement went into some detail about the meeting, asserting, “During the meeting Pope Francis said, ‘Thank you for your courage.’ Pope Francis also told Kim Davis, ‘Stay strong.’ He held out his hands and asked Kim to pray for him. Kim held his hands and said, ‘I will. Please pray for me,’ and the Pope said he would. The two embraced. The Pontiff presented Kim and Joe Davis each with a Rosary that he personally blessed. Kim’s mother and father are Catholic, and Kim and Joe will present the Rosaries to her parents.”

Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver also asserted that Francis had indeed referred to Kim Davis when he described conscientious objection as “a human right.” That claim is unverified.

But officials at the Vatican claimed that the meeting between Davis and the pope was brief, and she was only one among many people who met Francis in D.C. The meeting, church officials asserted, was arranged by the office of the Vatican’s ambassador in Washington.

“The pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis, and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects,” Lombardi said in a statement.

Vatican officials also pointed out that during his time in Washington, Francis met with a former student and friend, Yayo Grassi. Grassi, who is gay, brought his partner of 19 years and some friends to a meeting with the pope at the Vatican’s embassy in Washington. Video was shot of the event.

During his U.S. tour, Francis also met with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are engaged in an ongoing legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception regulations. The order has already received an exemption from the requirement to provide their employees with insurance plans that cover contraception, but they now claim that signing a form to receive that exemption violates their religious freedom. Although Francis did not mention the lawsuit, his visit was perceived by many to be a show of support for the order’s case. (Americans United attorneys have filed friend-of-the-court briefs opposing the Little Sisters’ argument).