Conservative Heads Explode Over Kentucky's Bigoted County Clerk

The recently jailed Kim Davis has some Republican presidential candidates sputtering unconstitutional nonsense

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has refused to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Credit: Ty Wright/Getty

Kim Davis, a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, has been dominating the news cycle all week with her stalwart refusal to do her job. Davis, who objects to same-sex marriage, has not been allowing her office to issue licenses to same-sex couples, claiming her personal religious belief about other people's relationships should trump the law of the land. Even though the Supreme Court has rejected her argument, Davis remains defiant, and on Thursday she was jailed for her actions.

This puts the Republican presidential candidates – all one billion of them – in a sticky situation. On the one hand, it's unwise to be seen supporting someone who is clearly destined to be a historical villain – the George Wallace of the gay civil rights era. On the other hand, you need those evangelical voters who don't know, or don't care, that future generations will see them as irredeemable bigots. Here are some of the ways conservatives are handling the situation, ranked roughly from most irrational to least.

Go full apocalyptic.
Mike Huckabee, who is running more for the evangelical speaker circuit than for president, got a headful of steam, apparently believing it's better to destroy the rule of law than let gay couples legally marry. "When people of conviction fight for what's right they often pay a price, but if they don't and we surrender, we will pay a far greater price for bowing to the false God of judicial supremacy," he railed, claiming that the Supreme Court has no authority at all over these matters. "Government is not God. No man – and certainly no unelected lawyer – has the right to redefine the laws of nature or of nature's God."

Since God isn't exactly coming off his cloud telling us what to do here, I guess we'll just have to take Huckabee's word on it.

Declare that imposing your beliefs by fiat is "religious liberty."
"The United States didn't create religious liberty. Religious liberty created the United States of America," Bobby Jindal said in a lofty statement. "This is an essential freedom and an essential right and I don't think you give up this right by simply taking a job."

Lovely words, but also nonsense. Davis is not supporting religious freedom. By using her power as county clerk to force her religious views on gay couples, she is denying them their religious freedom. What she is doing is about as straightforward as religious oppression gets.

Rand Paul, whose favorite rhetorical strategy is "college freshman blowhard," deflected the question by getting tediously libertarian about it. "I think one way to get around the whole idea of what the Supreme Court is forcing on the states is for states just to get out of the business of giving out licenses," he argued. "And anybody can make a contract. And then if you want a marriage contract you go to a church. And so I've often said we could have gotten around all of this also in the sense that I do believe everybody has a right to a contract."

Got it. So instead of letting gay couples have marriage licenses, ban marriage for everyone except couples rich enough to hire lawyers to draft individualized contracts. Rand Paul: still convinced he's the smartest guy in the room.'

Pretend you're talking about something entirely different.
Many Republican candidates have decided to act like Davis' actions aren't an impediment to gay couples getting marriage licenses. "While the clerk's office has a governmental duty to carry out the law," Marco Rubio said in a statement, "there should be a way to protect the religious freedom and conscience rights of individuals working in the office.

"What I've said before is for someone who works in the government has a bit of a different obligation than someone who's in the private sector or obviously working for educational institutions that's religiously based or others," Chris Christie said on talk radio, "but my point is we have to protect religious liberty and people's ability to be able to practice their religion freely and openly, and of course we have to enforce the law too."

Scott Walker and Ted Cruz are pushing the same line, claiming that there must be a way to allow Davis to have her way and for gay couples to get their licenses. They clearly want you to imagine that anti-gay clerks can simply pass the license over to someone less bigoted – er, religious – and everyone can go home happy. But that's not what Davis is doing. She is forbidding her office to issue the licenses altogether. As David Ermold and David Moore, who have been turned away four times, and April Miller and Karen Roberts, who have been turned away three times, can tell you, if you live in Rowan County and Davis refuses to give you a marriage license, you don't get one at all. There is no compromise here, and these candidates are being dishonest in implying there is.

Assure conservative voters you don't like the gays, but you aren't exactly going to burn down the country over it, either.
"We are a rule-of-law nation, and I appreciate her conviction. I support traditional marriage, but she's accepted a job where she has to apply the law to everyone. And that's her choice," Lindsay Graham argued.

Carly Fiorina concurred, saying that if Davis wants to "work for the government," she should "execute the government's will." John Kasich has made almost identical comments.

All three candidates assured voters that they still don't like same-sex marriage, but clearly they don't think their bigoted beliefs are anything to destroy basic rule of law over.

Making sense.
Ben Carson's campaign, while touchy about this subject, issued a surprisingly straightforward statement: "Dr. Carson has said since the Supreme Court ruling that it is the law of land and that's what he respects." No swipes at gay couples, no nonsense about "traditional marriage." Carson is a right-wing radical in most regards, but his team wisely knows that this is not the hill to die on.

Staying the hell out of it.
Smart candidates would just stay off the record and hope this all blows over before the the next Republican debate, on September 16. In that camp, as of this writing: Jeb Bush, Rick Perry and George Pataki. Also, despite his love of running his mouth, Donald Trump has wisely stayed out of this, and Rick Santorum hasn't offered an opinion, but that's probably because no one remembered to ask him.

As painful as it is for candidates to resist injecting your name into every news cycle, the zipped-lip move is clearly the smart one. Davis was jailed Thursday afternoon, meaning the end game here is near. Siting tight and letting this one pass is the smartest thing a candidate could do.