The Republican presidential field has started to take positions on Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who’s scheduled to appear in court on Thursday for refusing to issue marriage licenses in the state against the order of a federal judge. The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal from Davis, who continued to refuse to issue marriage licenses on Tuesday. Davis' lawyers on Wednesday again asked a judge to allow her to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
A handful of candidates weighed in on Tuesday and Wednesday, but only after they were asked for comment. Candidates who responded so far have done so along predictable lines, with social conservatives expressing outspoken support for Davis, and more moderate-minded candidates dismissing her move.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee defended Davis on religious freedom grounds.
Jindal's spokeswoman, Shannon Dirmann, said that "the governor believes every person should be able to follow their conscience, and clerks who cannot in good conscience participate in same sex marriage should not be forced to violate their beliefs."
Huckabee offered the loudest praise for Davis, saying in a statement that he called her to offer his "prayers and support" and that he was "proud" of her for "showing more courage and humility than just about any federal office holder in Washington."
He also offered a dubious interpretation of the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling that asserted Davis' refusal was perfectly legal.
"The Supreme Court cannot and did not make a law. They only made a ruling on a law. Congress makes the laws. Because Congress has made no law allowing for same sex marriage, Kim does not have the constitutional authority to issue a marriage license to homosexual couple," Huckabee said.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, meanwhile, said her protest is "part of the American Way."
"I think people who do stand up and are making a stand to say that they believe in something is an important part of the American way,” he told Boston Herald Radio on Tuesday.
Paul said, however, the solution to the controversy surrounding gay marriages would be for the states “just to get out of the business of giving out licenses.”
Notably, the situation in Kentucky has become a flashpoint in the state’s competitive gubernatorial race. GOP gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin is using it to attack Democrat Jack Conway, the state’s attorney general, who Bevin says has “failed” in his duty as attorney general in refusing to defend the state’s same-sex marriage ban in court.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina panned the clerk’s move, with Graham telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt Davis should “follow the law or resign.”
“The rule of law is the rule of law,” he said. “I appreciate her conviction, I support traditional marriage, but she’s accepted a job in which she has to apply the law to everyone."
Fiorina made a similar argument on Hewitt’s show on Tuesday, saying that when someone takes a job as a government employee, "you are agreeing to act as an arm of the government."
"Given the fact that the government is paying her salary, I think that is not appropriate,” Fiorina said of the clerk’s refusal.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gave a response that avoided taking a direct side but seemed to agree partly with Graham and Fiorina. He said in a Wednesday interview on conservative pundit Laura Ingraham's radio show that those who work in government have a "different obligation" than those who work in the private sector or for a religious organization. He stressed, however, the need to "balance" religious liberty with the rule of law.
“Every American has the right to free exercise of their religious beliefs,” Christie told Ingraham. “The fact though is, Laura, she has also selected a job where this puts her in a very, very difficult position, and the courts and their decision have put them in a difficult position.
"But we’ve got to first look at making sure we protect the constitutional rights, everybody’s constitutional rights, and we have to balance whatever steps we take off of what we have to do to enforce the laws as well," Christie added. "And so this is a very difficult period for people to be going through, but we’ve got to remember that the Constitution comes first."
Sen. Ted Cruz has not weighed in on the Kentucky situation specifically, but spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said that “he sticks by what he said before” on other instances where individuals refused to offer services to gay couples — "the federal government and court should in no way be able to compel people of faith to violate their religious beliefs."
"These people have a right to defend their own First Amendment right to religious freedom. He stands with anyone of being put in a position that is being forced to violate their religious beliefs because of this marriage decision,” she said.
The Kentucky clerk brings to mind a similar controversy in a neighboring state: Indiana, where a religious freedom bill that critics said would allow business owners to deny services to same-sex couples drew harsh condemnation from many Democrats and business owners — but largely unified the GOP field in support.
Some Republican presidential contenders, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, said the bill gave necessary protection to religious freedom, while others, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said it was “misunderstood” as discriminatory.
It’s unclear yet where the rest of the field stands on the Kentucky case, however, and Graham and Fiorina may well be the odd candidates out. It could be particularly challenging for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, one of the few candidates in the field who has openly shrugged at gay marriage legalization, but who hasn't had to defend his position in practice.