Can a Christian be a county clerk in the United States?
This is a question it now appears may ultimately be decided by five Supreme Court justices. With it, too, will ride such questions as: Can a Christian be a doctor? A nurse? A public-school teacher?
In June, when five justices declared that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment creates a right to "same-sex marriage," Justice Clarence Thomas issued a warning.
"In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution, it is a religious institution as well," Thomas wrote in his dissent. "Today's decision might change the former, but it cannot change the latter. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.
"The majority," said Thomas, "appears unmoved by that inevitability."
No sooner had the five justices commanded nationwide recognition of same-sex "marriage," then a move began in Kentucky to test whether an individual county clerk could be forced to personally authorize a same-sex marriage in contradiction to her Christian faith.
The rapid sequence of events was summarized in an appeal this clerk's nonprofit law firm -- the Liberty Counsel -- presented to the Supreme Court asking for an injunction to prevent her from being forced to do so.
First, Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear ordered that all county clerks in the state would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on a new "gender-neutral" form provided by the state government.
Like the previous form that recognized marriage as the union of a man and woman, this new form required county clerks to personally authorize each marriage in their own name -- whether the two people getting "married" were a man and a woman or a same-sex couple.
This presented Kim Davis, a devout Christian, with a moral problem. She had served as deputy clerk of Rowan County for 26 years before being elected clerk last November.
She had never refused to perform any function of her office. But this was different.
"I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage," she said in a statement issued Tuesday.
"To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God's definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience," she said. "It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God's Word. It is a matter of religious liberty, which is protected under the First Amendment, the Kentucky Constitution, and in the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act."
"Our history is filled with accommodations for people's religious freedom and conscience," said Davis. "I want to continue to perform my duties, but I also am requesting what our Founders envisioned - that conscience and religious freedom would be protected. That is all I am asking."
Davis stopped issuing marriage licenses, whether to opposite-sex or same-sex couples, and sought an accommodation from the state that would allow people to get marriage licenses without forcing a particular county clerk to personally authorize the marriage
In the meantime, nothing prevented same-sex couples living in Rowan County from entering "marriages" as ordered by the five Supreme Court justices.
"Under Kentucky marriage law predating Obergefell, individuals may obtain a marriage license from the county clerk in any of Kentucky's 120 counties, irrespective of their county of residence," Davis's Liberty Counsel attorneys told the Supreme Court in her request for an injunction.
"More than ten other clerks' offices are within a one hour drive of the Rowan County office, and these counties are issuing marriage licenses, along with the two counties where preliminary injunction hearings were held in this matter," said the lawyers.
But that did not stop four couples -- two of opposite sexes and two of the same -- from suing Davis, demanding she execute their marriage licenses.
The governor, meanwhile, offered Davis no mercy.
"Gov. Beshear has flatly rejected Davis' request for religious exemption," her lawyers explain. "In his view, Davis must either comply with his SSM Mandate, or resign from office."
This courageous woman has stood her ground.
The crusade against Davis aims to establish that if you are a Christian, who believes in Christ's teachings on marriage and will not act against them, you are no longer qualified to serve as a county clerk in the United States.