MOREHEAD, Ky. (AP) -- A Kentucky clerk who defied a federal judge's order to issue marriage licenses and turned away four gay couples has until Monday to convince the judge to delay his mandate.
U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning rejected Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis' claim that her Christian faith should exempt her from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and ordered her on Wednesday to hand out the licenses. But her office kept denying them.
As the attorneys for gay and straight couples seeking a license warned they could request that she be held in contempt, Bunning ordered Davis to submit a final plea to stay his decision by Monday.
The fight in this eastern Kentucky college town began soon after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in June. Davis was among a handful of clerks across the country to cite her Christian beliefs and declare she would no longer hand out licenses to any couples, gay or straight.
Legal experts have likened the case to the resistance some local officials in the South put up five decades ago after the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage.
"We're going to keep coming back," said Karen Roberts, shaking after she was denied a license to marry April Miller, her partner of 11 years. "We're going to fight this to the very end."
Three other couples streamed into the clerk's office throughout the morning, and all were denied.
Staff in Davis' office said she was on vacation. Though she has six employees authorized to issue licenses, deputy clerk Nathan Davis said the office was advised by its attorneys with the Christian law firm Liberty Counsel to continue refusing same-sex couples as it appeals the judge's decision. They handed one couple who demanded an explanation a Post-it note with Liberty Counsel's toll-free phone number.
"Kim Davis is just an example of what's going to be happening not only to other clerks but to other people who are going to be confronted with this issue and we think that this is a serious matter that needs to be decided by a higher court, even the Supreme Court," Liberty Counsel founder Mathew Staver said.
The couples said the Supreme Court already decided the issue when it legalized same-sex marriage in June. That day, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear told the clerks to issue licenses or resign.
A number objected. Lawrence County Clerk Chris Jobe, president of the Kentucky Clerks Association, has said nearly 60 of the state's 120 clerks pledged to send a letter to Beshear, asking that he call a special session to find a way to accommodate their faiths. Beshear's office said they received letters from 17 clerks, half of whom have told The Associated Press they have either been issuing licenses despite their religious objections, or would issue one if a same-sex couple applied. The others did not respond to message and emails.
Bunning said in his ruling Wednesday that Davis has likely violated the U.S. Constitution's protection against the establishment of a religion by "openly adopting a policy that promotes her own religious convictions at the expenses of others."
"Davis remains free to practice her Apostolic Christian beliefs," Bunning wrote. "She may continue to attend church twice a week, participate in Bible Study and minister to female inmates at the Rowan County Jail. She is even free to believe that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, as many Americans do. However, her religious convictions cannot excuse her from performing the duties that she took an oath to perform as Rowan County Clerk."
Davis' attorneys appealed the decision and asked the judge for a stay. The plaintiff's attorneys urged the judge to reject the request.
Laura Landenwich, an attorney for the couples, said they are considering asking the judge to hold Davis in contempt, which could carry a hefty fine or the threat of jail time.
Davis, elected last November as a Democrat, took over the office from her mother, Jean Bailey, who served as county clerk for 37 years, according to the Morehead News. Davis worked under her mother as a deputy clerk for 26 years. Nathan Davis refused to say if he is related to Kim Davis.
The battle has exposed the deep rift that remains in this county of 23,000 people, considered to be among the most progressive in eastern Kentucky.
James Yates and William Smith Jr., a couple for nearly a decade, said there was a disconnect between the clerk's actions and their experience in Morehead. They held hands as they walked into the clerk's office, and gay rights activists, who have lined the street with rainbow signs and flags every day for more than a month, shouted "Good luck!"
Still, some of the couples struggled to reconcile their support in the community and the rejection at the county clerk's office.
David Ermold broke down and cried in the county's judge-executive's office after he was denied a license to marry David Moore, his partner of 17 years.
"I will say that people are cruel, they are cruel, these people are cruel," Ermold said. "This is how gay people are treated in this country. This is what it's like. This is how it feels."
The county judge executive's secretary, Lois L. Hawkins, started to cry with him. She declined to comment, except to say it broke her heart and there was nothing she could do to help them.