The Slatest

Do GOP Hopefuls Care More About the Law or “Religious Liberty”? A Kim Davis Roundup.

Kim Davis
Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk of courts, stands at the County Clerk’s Office on Sept. 2, 2015, in Morehead, Kentucky.

Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images

The legal case of Rowan County clerk Kim Davis has now turned into a political one as well.

A federal judge on Thursday ordered the Kentucky clerk jailed for contempt for her refusal to issue marriage licenses as a way to avoid having to give one to a same-sex couple, something she says would be a violation of her Christian beliefs. “Her good faith belief is simply not a viable defense,” said U.S. District Judge David Bunning. The attorneys for the gay couples who brought the suit later sought a compromise: Davis would not be jailed as long as she allowed her deputies to follow the law and issue marriage licenses to both homo- and heterosexual couples in her stead. Davis, though, refused.

The ongoing legal fight has become the latest test case for a Republican presidential field that has split on whether to continue the battle it lost in the Supreme Court this summer, or to begrudgingly accept marriage equality and move on. The GOP contenders began slowly wading into the Kentucky debate earlier this week, and several struck more strident tones after Bunning’s decision Thursday.

Below is a roundup of the GOP responses to Davis’ stance, from both before and after her Thursday court adventure. There’s a rather massive chasm between some candidates—Mike Huckabee’s suggesting that Davis couldn’t even issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple if she wanted to, while Lindsey Graham’s on record saying that she should either do her job or resign—though most of the field has sided with Davis.

A few of the statements are a little difficult to parse (ahem, Chris Christie), but I’ve done my best to order them from her biggest defenders to her biggest critics.

Complete defense

Mike Huckabee on Facebook on Wednesday:

“I spoke with Kim Davis this morning to offer my prayers and support. I let her know how proud I am of her for not abandoning her religious convictions and standing strong for religious liberty. She is showing more courage and humility than just about any federal office holder in Washington. … 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 couples.”

Huckabee on Twitter on Thursday:

“Kim Davis in federal custody removes all doubts about the criminalization of Christianity in this country. We must defend #ReligiousLiberty!”

Ted Cruz on Facebook on Wednesday:

“Sadly, we’ve seen a war on faith break out across our nation, and we must be vigilant to protect the free exercise of religion—a value enshrined in our Constitution. We should make it possible for believers, such as Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in Kentucky, to hold government jobs without having to violate their religious beliefs. We can work together to come up with alternative ways to ensure that government functions are accomplished without infringing on religious liberty.”

Cruz in a statement on Thursday:

“Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny. Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. This is wrong. This is not America. I stand with Kim Davis. Unequivocally. I stand with every American that the Obama Administration is trying to force to chose [sic] between honoring his or her faith or complying with a lawless court opinion. … I call upon every Believer, every Constitutionalist, every lover of liberty to stand with Kim Davis. Stop the persecution now.”

Bobby Jindal to the Huffington Post on Wednesday:

“I don’t think anyone should have to choose between following their conscience and religious beliefs and giving up their job and facing financial sanctions. I think it’s wrong to force Christian individuals or business owners. We are seeing government today discriminate against whether it’s clerks, florists, musicians or others. I think that’s wrong. I think you should be able to keep your job and follow your conscience. I absolutely do believe people have a First Amendment right, a constitutional right. I don’t think the court can take that away.”

Scott Walker to Laura Ingraham on Thursday:

“In the end, this is the balance that you got to have to have in America, between the laws that are out there, but ultimately ensuring that the Constitution is upheld,” he said. “I read that the Constitution is very clear that people have freedom of religion—you have the freedom to practice religious beliefs out there, it’s a fundamental right.”

Strong defense—but with a little wiggle room

Marco Rubio in a statement to the New York Times on Wednesday:

“We should seek a balance between government’s responsibility to abide by the laws of our republic and allowing people to stand by their religious convictions. … While the clerk’s office has a governmental duty to carry out the law, there should be a way to protect the religious freedom and conscience rights of individuals working in the office.”

Rand Paul to Boston Herald Radio on Tuesday:

“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. … 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. … 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.”

Paul took a firmer stance in an interview with CNN on Thursday:

“I think it’s absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberty. I think it’s a real mistake and even those on the other side of the issue, I think it sets their movement back. … What’s going to happen is it’s going to harden people’s resolve on this issue. I think what’s going to happen is that state and localities are just going to opt out of the marriage business.”

Wait, what are we talking about?

Donald Trump when asked at a press conference Thursday:

“I don’t know enough about it to comment on it. Was she jailed? I really don’t know much about it.”

The mushy middle

Chris Christie to radio host Laura Ingraham on Wednesday:

“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, 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.”

Jeb Bush to reporters at a town hall on Thursday:

“[Davis] is sworn to uphold the law and it seems to me there ought to be common ground, there ought to be big enough space for her to act on her conscience and for, now that the law is the law of the land, for a gay couple to be married in whatever jurisdiction that is.”

John Kasich to the Washington Post on Wednesday:

“I’ve taken my position on it.” A spokesman later clarified to the paper that the candidate was talking about his reaction to this summer’s SCOTUS decision. “We’ll honor what the Supreme Court does,” Kasich said then. “It’s the law of the land. It’s the way that America functions.”

Do your job

Carly Fiorina to radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday:

“I think that we must protect religious liberties with great passion and be willing to expend a lot of political capital to do so now because it’s clear religious liberty is under assault in many, many ways. Having said that, when you are a government employee, I think you take on a different role. When you are a government employee as opposed to say, an employee of another kind of organization, then in essence, you are agreeing to act as an arm of the government.”

Lindsey Graham to radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday:

“As a public official, comply with the law or resign. The rule of law is the rule of law. That’s what we are. 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.”


Those GOP candidates not named above haven’t commented. I reached out to the entire GOP field on Tuesday, but none would comment on the record. I’ll update with more responses as they come in.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.

This post has been updated with additional information as it became available.