Martyr or lawbreaker? Kim Davis case roils Republicans

Michael Mathes

Washington (AFP) - A Kentucky clerk who landed in jail for defying a court order on gay marriage is being hailed by some Republicans as a modern day martyr for religious liberty.

But others are not so sure Kim Davis' is a cause they should champion in a turbulent election year.

Two Republican presidential candidates -- Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee -- have rushed to defend the county official, even though legal experts say the born-again Christian was clearly in the wrong to refuse to carry out official duties in the name of her faith.

Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, was at Davis' side when the bespectacled 49-year-old emerged from jail in Kentucky Tuesday after five days behind bars for contempt of court, having refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

"We cannot criminalize the Christian faith, or anybody's faith in this country," said Huckabee.

"If you have to put someone in jail, I volunteer to go," Huckabee declared. "Lock me up if you think that’s how freedom is best served."

Both Cruz and Huckabee have branded the action against Davis as "judicial tyranny," tapping into a surge of public support for a figure presented as an outspoken Christian jailed for her beliefs.

- 'Not a leg to stand on' -

But their stance is a thorny one for Republican presidential candidates who, if elected, must swear to uphold the US constitution.

And in this case, the US Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage as a constitutional right in a landmark ruling in June.

"That's really the end of it," Sanford Levinson, a constitutional scholar at the University of Texas Law School, told AFP.

"If you talked to 100 people who would describe themselves or are described as constitutional experts, I think 95 percent would say that she doesn't have a leg to stand on," Levinson said.

Levinson and others said Davis was duty-bound to provide services to those legally entitled to them, even if it went against her convictions.

"She's in the wrong," Yale Law School professor William Eskridge, who taught Cruz at Harvard, told AFP.

Eskridge warned, however, that religious liberty advocates now "have a martyr" for their cause in Davis.

Dissenters on the Supreme Court had warned that "liberty and equality clashes are on their way, and here they are," said Eskridge.

- 'Poisons the brand' -

Not all US conservatives are on the religious freedom bandwagon, however, seeing problems ahead.

"Whatever their intentions, these people are doing great harm to the cause of religious liberty and to the reputation of their faith," conservative columnist Michael Gerson wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post.

"Davis's defiance is the wrong test case for the protection of religious freedom," he said.

Republican presidential contenders from the frontrunner Donald Trump to Jeb Bush, Ohio Governor John Kasich or former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina have all in essence said Davis ought to comply with the law or resign.

But Cruz and Huckabee are all in for the nation's evangelical Christians, a crucial demographic in the race for the Republican nomination, particularly in the first voting state of Iowa.

"It certainly has had a ripple effect," Ferrel Guillory, a professor at the University of North Carolina who teaches about southern politics, said of the Davis case's impact on the Republican primaries.

"Cruz and Huckabee have been overshadowed by Donald Trump, and this gives them a chance to boost themselves" in the nominations race, he said.

Eskridge, however, said the issue is unlikely to persist during the general election because "it's not in the Republicans' interests to demagogue too much."

"It poisons the brand, and I think we're already seeing Republicans as a group starting to back away."