Defending the God-Given Liberty of County Clerks to Ignore Duties They Don’t Like

It’s sometimes easy to forget with all the presidential campaign stuff going on, but there will be gubernatorial elections in two states this November, Kentucky and Louisiana. And while the latter may really amount to a bipartisan celebration that Bobby Jindal’s finally leaving the office he’s become bored with as anything other than a presidential campaign prop, the former bids fare to be a good old-fashioned partisan cliffhanger. In a state that’s been trending pretty sharply Republican, however, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway remains the betting favorite over Republican nominee Matt Bevin, best known as the Tea Party dude who got crushed by Mitch McConnell in a 2014 Senate primary.

But Bevin seems to think he’s found a big vote-pleaser, per the Louisville Courier-Journal‘s Phillip Bailey:

Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin said during a national conference call Tuesday he fully supports Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’ right to refuse gay couples seeking marriage licenses.

“I absolutely support her willingness to stand on her First Amendment rights,” he said. “Without any question I support her.”

The strong defense of Davis’ actions underscores how the GOP nominee hopes to make the fight over gay marriage a centerpiece of the 2015 governor’s race, which polling shows is a tight race between him and Democratic nominee Jack Conway.

Conway’s position is that the Supreme Court decision striking down Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban is the law of the land, and as such everyone, even public officials, should obey it (snark intended). There’s abundant evidence this is the way the wind’s blowing everywhere, which is why most Republican pols have stopped talking about the issue except when they are trapped in some church basement with members of their party base.

Bevin does, however, have a broader vision: like his junior senator, Rand Paul, he’s talking about getting government out of the marriage business altogether.

There’s the obvious problem with this idea, of course, that it strands the many, many policies Republicans favor that are linked to marital status. But beyond that, isn’t it a little drastic to separate marriage from the state when the issue at hand is the tender consciences of county clerks? I mean, perhaps I don’t understand Kentucky, and maybe county clerks there wield unusual power and possess unusual prestige, like sheriffs in Louisiana or water district councils in California. But if not, it may take Bevin a while to explain to regular Kentuckians that they should no longer be in state-sanctioned marriages because some county clerk wants to get paid to do some but not all of her job.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.