An armed group called the Oath Keepers has vowed to defend Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in Kentucky from arrest by U.S. marshals if she keeps defying a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses in accordance with the Supreme Court’s June ruling legalizing same-sex marriages nationwide. Davis says she is exercising her constitutional right to freedom of religion.
Davis stopped issuing all marriage licenses in her office after the ruling, citing her opposition to same-sex marriage as a Christian. The American Civil Liberties Union brought a federal suit against her on behalf of four couples denied licenses, and she became a hero to many conservative Christians and opponents of gay marriage.
The Oath Keepers, who carry weapons in public and wear military-style garb, say they are dedicated to stopping authorities from trampling American citizens’ constitutional rights. They drew attention when they took to the streets last year in Ferguson, Missouri, saying they were protecting protect business owners and residents from looting and sporadic violence amid protests over the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer.
Many Ferguson residents and law enforcement officers said they found the group’s presence unnecessary, even intimidating. Davis’ lawyers say they want nothing to do with the group, which includes military veterans and former law enforcement officers. Many of them profess deep suspicion of the government and fervent support for gun rights and states’ autonomy from the federal government.
On Friday, some of Davis’ supporters distanced themselves from the group.
“Neither Kim Davis nor Liberty Counsel heard of Oath Keepers before erroneous reports of their involvement in our case,” said Charla Bansley, a spokeswoman for Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian group that has championed Davis’ cause. “Likewise, neither Kim Davis nor Liberty Counsel supports or condones any form of armed resistance, violence or force.”
The Oath Keepers, in a statement posted online this week, condemned federal judge David Bunning, who ordered Davis held in jail in contempt of court and released her on Tuesday after six days. Her deputies have resumed issuing licenses despite her stance, and she is expected to return to work on Monday.
“The judge is violating the Constitution in his anger and desire to punish her for going against his will,” the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, said in a statement posted this week on the group’s website.
“We are already being subjected to an unconstitutional imperial presidency, that grew exponentially under both [George W.] Bush and [Barack] Obama, expanding the claimed war powers of the president to swallow up our Bill of Rights and circumvent jury trial,” the statement added, saying the group would prevent the U.S. Marshals Service from taking Davis into custody.
“No one man should have that kind of power in his hands alone to decide guilt and impose a sentence of indefinite detention,” Rhodes continued. “Under our Constitution, that dictatorial power does not exist. We must stand against this. And so we will protect her and prevent it from happening again.”
Several Oath Keepers are already in Rowan County, he said, without giving details about what they were doing. The group did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
The Oath Keepers was founded in 2009 and has about 30,000 members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks organizations it deems militias and hate groups.
Members of the Oath Keepers have inserted themselves into several thorny issues. They were briefly in the spotlight last year when they showed up in Nevada to try to stop federal agents from collecting cattle, owned by anti-government activist Cliven Bundy, that were illegally grazing on federal land. Other armed opponents of the federal government ousted the Oath Keepers from the Nevada demonstrations, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, which has been advocating for same-sex couples’ right to obtain marriage licenses, said it did not see the Oath Keepers as a significant factor in the Davis case.
“It’s not something that we’re talking about or planning for, ” said Amber Duke, a spokeswoman for the ACLU’s Kentucky branch. “To me it seems like it’s a law enforcement issue. It’s tangentially related to our case. We’re concerned about the litigation, and we’re not getting bogged down in the side drama.”