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Marriage License Issue Roiled by Religious Exemption Pleas, Surveys Show

Kim Davis
The question of granting religious conscience objections to elected officials such as Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed over a refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses, continues to divide Americans. (Reuters)

The continuing debate over same-sex marriage, and whether state, county or municipal officials with religious objections to issuing licenses to same-sex couples, is roiling again, a survey in Idaho reveals.

According to a survey published in the Idaho Politics Weekly online newsletter, "56 percent of Idahoans 'definitely' or 'probably' agree that county clerks should be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples regardless of the clerk's personal views on the matter." The survey revealed 58 percent of Idahoans supported the September 2015 jailing of elected Rowan, Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, for refusing to issue such licenses, claiming doing so would violate her conscience.

Davis, an Apostolic Pentecostal Christian whose personal life was harshly scrutinized in some media outlets, was released from jail after other clerks in her office agreed to issue the licenses. Davis and other county clerks had asked Governor Steven L. Beshear to convene a special legislative session to pass conscience exemptions following the June 26 Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Beshear, a Democrat, refused, with a spokesman saying the legislature could take it up in 2016.

That left Davis and others on the horns of a dilemma. She maintained issuing a marriage license to a same-sex couple — on which her name, as county clerk, had been imprinted — would go against her beliefs.

"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," Davis told the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal. "I never sought to be in this position, and I would much rather not have been placed in this position."

Idahoans aren't alone in believing Davis should have issued the licenses regardless of her religious beliefs. An Associated Press/GfK poll released in late October showed 56 percent of Americans feel the same way.

But the question becomes more nuanced when issues of conscience are involved. Both North Carolina and Utah have enacted provisions to allow for conscience exemptions, so long as another person in a clerk's office is designated to issue the licenses.

University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson, an expert on religious liberty issues, told website those objecting to an exemption for religious conscience may have a deeper issue.

"It is wrong to say we can never have religious objectors in our midst—just because they're religious," Wilson said. "As long as you can staff the office in such a way so that all of its functions get fulfilled and nobody ever gets treated differently, then religious people need to be accommodated. If an elected town clerk, like Ms. Davis, objects to same-sex marriage, then they need to find someone who doesn't object and assign them those duties, sharing the workload appropriately. That way everybody gets the same process and it's invisible to the public. If anyone has an objection to that kind of workaround, what they're really objecting to is that religious people even exist."

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