Tuesday, August 18, 2015
A few months after the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, reversing the Sixth Circuit's opinion, and declaring that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the issue of same-sex marriage is again reaching the Sixth Circuit.
This time, however, the issue is whether a government employee, a court clerk in Kentucky, can refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses - - - or any marriage licenses - - - based upon a claim of free exercise of religion. The claim of religious exemptions from state clerks is not new (consider events in New York in 2011); neither are objections to implementing the Court's decision in Obergefell (consider events in Alabama this summer). Nevertheless, this controversy has become particularly focused.
United States District Judge David Bunning's Opinion and Order last week in Miller v. Davis issued a preliminary injunction in favor of April Miller and Karen Roberts, enjoining Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis from applying the "no marriage licenses" policy. The Judge rejected Davis' First Amendment claims. First, Judge Bunning found that Governor Beshear's directive to county clerks to issue same-sex marriage licenses was a general law of neutral applicability that "likely does not infringe on Davis' free exercise rights." Second, Judge Bunning further found that the issuance of the marriage license did not implicate Davis' free speech rights: the issuance of the license, even with the clerk's certification, is not an endorsement and furthermore is quite possibly government rather than individual speech, citing the Court's decision in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans from last Term. Judge Bunning also rejected Davis' third - and perhaps the most interesting - claim based upon Article VI §3 prohibiting a "religious Test" as a qualification for public office. Davis argued that this prohibition meant that her religious beliefs must be accommodated. Even as he rejected this interpretation, Judge Bunning drew attention to the "first half" of Article VI §3 requiring state officials to take an oath to defend the United States Constitution.
Davis predictably sought a stay of the preliminary injunction. In an Order late yesterday, Judge Bunning denied the stay, including in his 7 page opinion an extensive quote from Obergefell regarding the relationship of religious freedom to same-sex marriage. Yet Judge Bunning did stay the order denying the stay:
in recognition of the constitutional issues involved, and realizing that emotions are running high on both sides of the debate, the Court finds it appropriate to temporarily stay this Order pending review of Defendant Davis’ Motion to Stay (Doc. # 45) by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
While decisions to stay and to issue preliminary injunctions involve equitable and other factors, of central prominence is the probable outcome on the merits. Thus, the Sixth Circuit is again poised to consider, albeit less directly, the issue of same-sex marriage.