MOREHEAD, Ky. >> Before she ignited a firestorm over gay marriage, Kim Davis was known, for decades, as a woman behind the counter of a small county clerk’s office: a mild-mannered conduit for auto tag renewals, lien releases, land records and marriage certificates.
She was not a celebrity, but she was a fixture. Her mother had been the Rowan County clerk for 37 years, and when she announced her retirement, Davis, who had worked in the office for much of that time, ran successfully as a Democrat to succeed her. A Republican candidate lodged an accusation of nepotism, to no avail.
She knew her clients, and their stories. If she knew a family member was sick, or feeble with age, or in trouble with the law, she would ask after that person while conducting county business. She would often offer her prayers.
It was not a job likely to lead to notoriety, but after she defied court orders to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples, there she was Tuesday, hailed and berated by placard-wielding strangers outside Rowan County’s tidy, six-columned courthouse. Some had taken to the Internet to praise her for her stand. Others excoriated her, accusing her of hypocrisy and citing her family history, which includes four marriages — two to her current husband.
It was an unlikely scene for this rural county in northeast Kentucky and for Davis, a 49-year-old mother of four, and a worshipper at Solid Rock Apostolic Church. But she said she had no choice.
"I owe my life to Jesus Christ who loves me and gave His life for me," she wrote in a statement issued by Liberty Counsel, a conservative group that is representing her in federal court. She added: "To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of a marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision."
Davis grew up in Rowan County, and never lived anywhere else. It is hilly Appalachian country, with a nearly all-white population, home to sawmills, lumber companies and mobile homes. Morehead, the county seat, is full of churches and fast-food restaurants. The poverty rate is just below 29 percent. And a steady government salary is a prized thing.
In last year’s three-way Democratic primary, Davis won by 23 votes, then faced off against a Republican, John Cox. Davis ran on a promise of continuity of service: "Jean Bailey is one of the most respected clerks in the state, and I’ve been blessed to watch and learn from her," she said of her mother, in an interview with The Morehead News.
During the campaign, Cox posted a satirical YouTube clip, standing at a lectern during a fake news conference. He was asked how he would deal with "nepotism in the county clerks’ office." Cox said he would refer the question to his press secretary.
The video then cuts to Don Knotts in the role of Deputy Barney Fife from "The Andy Griffith Show": "I say this calls for action and now," Barney declares. "You’ve got to nip it in the bud!"
Davis was elected with 53 percent of the vote.
In her statement, released on Tuesday, Davis described her religious awakening, which occurred about four years ago. She said her mother-in-law had asked, as a "dying wish," that Davis attend church.
"There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ," Davis wrote. "I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God."
Friends and family said she had joined Solid Rock Apostolic Church, which meets in a long building of cinderblocks that sits near the county line along a two-lane highway dotted with service stations, other churches and a bingo parlor. The congregation, which first met in October 2011, describes itself on its website as a "Biblically fundamental body of believers."
The church’s pastor, Daniel Carter, declined to comment Tuesday. But others said Davis put her faith into action. Donald K. Hall Sr., the former county jailer, said that Davis had approached him and asked if she could operate a Bible study for detainees at the county jail. He gave her permission, and she held classes for female detainees on Monday evenings.
But Davis’ imperfections have become ammunition for her critics. On a Facebook page set up by supporters, detractors have repeatedly mentioned her numerous marriages in disparaging postings: "Way to keep the sanctity of marriage flying there," one post read.
A family member, who did not want to be identified because Davis had received death threats, said Davis was on her second marriage to her current husband, Joe Davis, 49. Other marriage certificates on file in Rowan County show that she was married in 2007 to a construction worker named Thomas McIntyre Jr., and in 1984 to a store clerk named Dwain Wallace.
Davis stopped issuing all marriage licenses after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June. When Gov. Steven L. Beshear, a Democrat, ordered county clerks to issue marriage licenses to all eligible couples, Davis sued in federal court.
"Before taking office as county clerk in January 2015, Davis swore an oath to support the constitutions and laws of the United States and the Commonwealth of Kentucky ‘so help me God,’" her lawyers wrote in an August court filing. "Davis understood (and understands) this oath to mean that, in upholding the federal and state constitutions and laws, she would not act in contradiction to the moral law of God, natural law, or her sincerely held religious beliefs and convictions."
Some here praise Davis for defying a culture that they feel has strayed from a moral path.
"She’s a hero," said Florene Whitt, 68, of Morehead, a retired housecleaner who is related to Davis by marriage. "She’s standing strong against the gays. And I agree with her. The Bible says husband and wife. Not two women, and not two stupid men. This world has become so sick that it is ruining our young generation."
In her statement, Davis struck a different tone, saying she harbored "no ill will" toward anyone.
The family member said Davis had prayed often before her decision, as did many of her relatives. They prayed, the relative said, "that we’d be able to stand for what we believe in."