Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis walked out of a Kentucky detention center to massive applause Tuesday after spending five days behind bars for defying a federal order that she issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But her attorney said that Davis would continue to abide by her conscience, which cannot condone same-sex nuptials, and that all licenses issued since her incarceration were not valid.
The defiant stand seems likely to land Davis right back in jail, from where she emerged Tuesday afternoon alongside her attorney, Mat Staver, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was hosting a rally in her honor. Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor, told reporters outside the detention center he’d be willing to go to jail in her place should a federal judge find she’s violated the conditions of her release.
“We cannot criminalize the Christian faith or anybody’s faith in this country,” Huckabee said.
Davis later addressed the crowd herself, walking up to the stage in tears as Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” played on loudspeakers. Huckabee and Staver stood on either side of her, victoriously holding her hands up in the air.
“I just want to give God the glory,” Davis said. “We serve a living God who knows exactly where each and everyone stands. Keep pressing, don’t let down because he is here. He is worthy.”
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Earlier Tuesday, U.S. District Judge David Bunning – the same judge responsible for putting Davis behind bars – authorized her release pending her office’s continued compliance with an August order that she issue marriage licenses to all eligible applicants. Davis had stopped granting marriage licenses to both gay and straight couples since the U.S. Supreme Court decided in June to make marriage equality the law of the land.
Since plaintiffs in the case have been able to receive marriage licenses from Davis’ deputies, Bunning said he was satisfied the clerk’s office was complying with his order to issue the licenses.
“On September 8, 2015, Plaintiffs filed a Status Report at the Court’s behest,” Bunning wrote in his order Tuesday. “According to the Report, Plaintiffs have obtained marriage licenses from the Rowan County Clerk’s Office. The Court is therefore satisfied that the Rowan County Clerk’s Office is fulfilling its obligation to issue marriage licenses to all legally eligible couples, consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Obergefell and this Court’s August 12, 2015 Order. For these reasons, the Court’s prior contempt sanction against Defendant Davis is hereby lifted.”
Tuesday’s release order came as Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Huckabee headed to the Carter County Detention Center to meet with Davis and potentially score points with social conservative voters.
Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, pledged to do “everything in his power to ensure more Americans don’t become victim to religious persecution by the government,” an aide to his campaign told NBC News. The statement reflected Cruz’s broader strategy to run as the ultimate protector of religious freedom, which the White House hopeful has consistently warned is facing an assault in America. In a separate statement on Facebook Tuesday, Cruz said “Praise God that Kim Davis is being released.”
Not to be outdone, Huckabee hosted an “#ImWithKim Liberty Rally” outside the Carter County Detention Center Tuesday, following his visit with Davis. Cheers rang out as Huckabee entered the detention center with his wife in the early afternoon. He emerged a hero, walking out a few steps behind Davis. (Cruz, meanwhile, walked out of the detention center a few minutes earlier, alone.)
The case has become a lightning rod for religious freedom advocates who oppose same-sex marriage. For Republican presidential candidates, it has presented an opportunity to court evangelical voters and break away from the crowded field.
“She has ignited something across this country,” Huckabee told reporters Tuesday. “People are tired of the tyranny of judicial action that takes people’s freedoms away, takes their basic fundamental constitutional rights and puts them in jeopardy, and the tyranny of a legislative court that believes it can make up law and somehow find a way to enforce it.”
Not every Republican presidential candidate agrees, however. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham have all said that Davis should abide by the law, not her religious beliefs.
Davis had been in jail for five days, having been found in contempt of court last week by Bunning, a President George W. Bush appointee. In August, Bunning concluded that Davis’ religious objection to same-sex nuptials was not a good enough reason for her to deny eligible couples their marriage licenses — something Davis had been doing since June, when the nation’s highest court found same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional in the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges. Bunning ordered her to resume issuing marriage licenses to all couples — gay and straight.
But Davis continued to turn away couples seeking marriage licenses, even after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to put a hold on Bunning’s order pending appeal. Citing concern that financial penalties would not be enough to secure compliance with his order, Bunning found Davis in contempt of court on Thursday and remanded her into the custody of federal marshals.
On Friday, Davis’ deputies began issuing marriage licenses to both gay and straight couples, though her attorney said those licenses were “not worth the paper they’re written on.” Rowan County Attorney Cecil Watkins, meanwhile, has said licenses issued without Davis’ approval would still be valid.
Among several appeals that Davis’ legal team has filed with the 6th Circuit, one asks for relief from Gov. Steve Beshear’s mandate that all county clerks issue marriage licenses. If Davis’ name is removed from the licenses, her attorneys said, she will not stand in the way of her deputies issuing them.
Beshear, however, maintains that only the state legislature can change the marriage licenses, and that he will not call a special session to address the matter. To do so, he said, would cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money.”
Bunning said in his order Tuesday that Davis “shall not interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, with the efforts of her deputy clerks to issue marriage licenses to all legally eligible couples.” But Staver suggested such interference was likely.
“She cannot allow a license authorizing same-sex marriage to go under her authority or name,” Staver said in an interview with NBC News’ Gabe Gutierrez, ahead of Davis’ release. “That’s been her position from the beginning and that will be her position, I assume, on any subsequent occasion. She’s asking for a simple fix, a simple accommodation.”
“We’re back to square one,” he added. “She’s been released. But there has been no resolution.”