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Kentucky clerk who denied marriage licenses to gay couples will have to pay damages, jury finds

Kim Davis, the former Rowan County clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in 2015, will have to pay $100,000 in damages to one of the couples she denied, a jury found Wednesday.

David Ermold and David Moore, a couple who were denied a marriage license by Davis’ office three times, were awarded $50,000 each at the conclusion of a three-day trial in federal court. However, a separate couple — James Yates and Will Smith — were also suing Davis for damages but were awarded nothing from a separate jury.

The four men sued Davis demanding compensation for the humiliation, mental anguish and emotional distress they say she caused them. The verdict comes over a year after U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning ruled that Davis violated the rights of the couples.

Ermold and Moore were clearly happy at the news, embracing and holding back tears after Bunning read the jury’s verdict. Joseph Buckle, one of the attorneys representing the couple, applauded Bunning and the jury for a fair trial.

“There’s been a lot of media attention,” Buckle said, “and the judge had a tough job to try to pick fair and impartial jurors and I think he did a great job.”

Horatio Mihet, an attorney for Davis, said they planned to appeal the jury’s finding for Ermold and Moore but was happy with the verdict in Yates and Moore’s case.

“A mixed day today. We are obviously grateful that the Yates jury fully vindicated Miss Davis,” Mihet told reporters, adding that there was “more work to do in the Ermold matter.”

David Ermold and David Moore married in October, 2015 in Morehead, Ky. The couple had previously been denied a marriage license by Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis. Ermold is now running for county clerk.
David Ermold and David Moore married in October, 2015 in Morehead, Ky. The couple had previously been denied a marriage license by Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis. Ermold is now running for county clerk.

The trial was somewhat atypical in that it had two separate juries — one for each couple’s case. The jury deciding Ermold and Moore’s case deliberated for about two hours while Yates and Smith’s case was decided in about an hour.

An attorney representing Yates and Smith declined to comment Wednesday.

The couple was seeking $300,000 in damages. Rene Heinrich, another one of the couple’s attorneys, said in her closing argument that the dollar amount asked showed the depth of their pain and suffering.

Following the 2015 Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal, Smith and Yates sought a marriage license from the Rowan County clerk’s office five times. They were finally awarded one while Davis was jailed after being held in contempt of court for refusing to issue marriage licenses.

County clerks in Kentucky issue marriage licenses.

Davis, an evangelical Christian who believes that marriage is only between a man and a woman, said issuing a license to a gay couple with her name on it would violate her beliefs and rights. She had her office stop issuing licenses to any couples for a time in order to avoid having to issue one to a gay couple.

In testimony Wednesday, Davis said her office stopped issuing the licenses while she sought an accommodation to not have her name attached to a same-sex marriage.

Her office turned away several gay couples who came in for licenses, a controversy that led to demonstrations and national news coverage.

Those demonstrations and coverage were a sticking point among the arguing attorneys Wednesday.

Michael Gartland, a Lexington attorney who represents Ermold and Moore along with Buckle, argued that Davis’ decision to deny the marriage licenses brought on the “media circus” and intense demonstrations.

Attorneys for Davis, who is represented by a Christian organization called Liberty Counsel, argued that the couples brought on the public attention by posting about Davis’ decision online.

In his own testimony Tuesday, Ermold said Davis’ action fueled bias against gay people in the community. People opposed to same-sex marriage yelled homophobic slurs at Ermold, Moore, Yates and Smith when they went to Davis’ office.

“Personal safety became more of a concern,” Yates testified.

Ermold said he has a lingering fear that someone will burn his house or harm his animals. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) before the controversy, but Davis’ actions amplified it, Ermold said.

“I live in a perpetual state of fear,” he said.

It has taken eight years to get to a trial on potential damages for two couples because of several appeals of rulings in the case.

Gartland said lawyers for Ermold and Moore plan to seek payment of what is likely a substantial amount of attorney’s fees built up over time. He estimated the fees would be north of $150,000.

The judgment returned Wednesday is against Davis personally, so she will be liable for payment, Gartland said.