Discrimination in Social Services

Ky. Officials Learn That Ignoring The Law Can Have Costly Consequences

  Rob Boston

The saga of Kim Davis, the former Rowan County, Ky., clerk who made headlines in 2015 after she refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples due to her fundamentalist religious beliefs, has just had an interesting coda: A federal appeals court has ruled that Kentucky officials are responsible for paying nearly a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees accumulated by the people whose rights Davis denied.

Davis, you’ll recall, decided she was not going to follow the U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding marriage equality. She ordered every clerk in her office to turn away same-sex couples (and eventually all couples seeking marriage licenses). Although she was lauded as a folk hero by the Religious Right, the men and women whose rights she denied had a different view: They knew Davis to be a religious extremist who believed she had a right to elevate her personal religious beliefs above their civil rights and ignore the highest court in the land.

Litigation followed, and to no one’s surprise, Davis lost in court. She also lost her position. Rowan County voters booted her from office last year.

Under federal law, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyers who represented the couples who successfully sued Davis are allowed to recover attorneys’ fees. That figure now stands at $224,000. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican who formerly praised Davis as “an inspiration … to the children of America,” didn’t want to pay it. In court, attorneys for the state argued that Davis was acting on her own and should be responsible for the bill.

A federal court disagreed, and now the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has, too. Davis, both courts agreed, was operating as an agent of the state when she violated the rights of the couples she turned away, so the state must pay the bill.

Government officials are public servants who should serve everyone equally – not cite their religious beliefs to justify taxpayer-funded discrimination against LGBTQ people or anyone else. Perhaps someone in Kentucky’s government should have explained that to Davis. Because they apparently could not be bothered to do that, Kentucky officials have just learned an important lesson: violating your citizens’ rights is a foolish – and expensive – thing to do.

(Photo: Screenshot of Kim Davis with protestors via Louisville Courier-Journal video)

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