Ky. voters split on fate of county clerks who refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses
By John Cheves
A majority of Kentucky voters disagrees with the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, although voters are evenly split over the fate of county clerks who refuse to issue marriage licenses because of religious objections to the landmark ruling.
In the latest Bluegrass Poll, 38 percent said county clerks who refuse to issue marriage licenses should be removed from office, 36 percent said clerks should be allowed to refuse, and 16 percent said the power to issue marriage licenses should be transferred to a state agency. An additional 9 percent weren’t sure.
Of the handful of Kentucky county clerks who refuse to issue marriage licenses, none have been removed from office, although one — Kim Davis of Rowan County — is being sued in U.S. District Court by some of her constituents. Judge David Bunning is expected to issue a decision in that case in coming weeks.
Respondents, based on their based on age, geography and political ideology, were sharply divided on what should happen to rogue county clerks.
■ Only one in four of those younger than 35 thought clerks should be allowed to refuse to issue marriage licenses, compared to 40 percent of those 65 and older.
■ A slim majority of registered voters in Louisville thought clerks who don’t issue marriage licenses should be removed from office. The opposite was true in Eastern Kentucky, where a slim majority said clerks should be allowed to refuse.
■ Among backers of Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin, 54 percent supported allowing clerks to refuse. Among supporters of Democratic nominee Jack Conway, 60 percent said clerks who refuse should be removed from office.
Conway, the state’s attorney general, has said he’s open to finding an “alternative avenue” for county clerks who have refused to issue marriage licenses. Bevin has said the state should stop issuing marriage licenses altogether. Short of that, Bevin said, lawmakers should take steps to protect clerks who don’t want to issue marriage licenses.
Meanwhile, 53 percent of registered voters told the Bluegrass Poll they disagreed with the court’s June 26 decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges to extend marital rights to same-sex couples. Thirty-eight percent said they agreed with the decision, and 10 percent said they were not sure.
Those numbers are little changed from Bluegrass Polls taken before the court’s decision. In March, the poll found 57 percent of registered voters opposed allowing gays and lesbians to marry. Last July, the poll showed 50 percent opposing same-sex marriage.
However, Kentucky’s opposition to gay marriage seems to be softening over time. In 2004, 75 percent of state voters approved a now-defunct state constitutional amendment to define marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman.
The latest Bluegrass Poll showed that support for gay marriage is highest among the young, those who have college educations, those who earn larger incomes and those who live in cities, while the strongest opposition comes from older and rural voters, and those with less education and income.
In a related question, 34 percent of respondents said they were more likely to vote for Bevin because he disagrees with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and 34 percent said they ere more likely to vote for Conway because he agrees with it. However, the pro-Bevin respondents were older, on average, and older registered voters tend to show up on Election Day in the greatest numbers.
Overall, the poll found that 76 percent of Bevin’s supporters disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling and 59 percent of Conway’s supporters agreed with it.
The statewide poll — conducted by SurveyUSA for the Herald-Leader, The Courier-Journal, WKYT-TV and WHAS-TV — asked 863 registered voters their opinions from July 22 through 28. This section of the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Shifting attitudes and demographics suggest that opponents of same-sex marriage “are on the losing side of history,” said Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based human rights group.
“The trajectory has been clear and quick in the decrease of opposition and the rise of support,” Hartman said. “In 20 years, when the younger generation has become the older generation, there will be very little debate left. People will think, ‘Oh, my lord, why were we even having this conversation in 2015?’ It’s the same way we feel about interracial marriage after the Supreme Court legalized that.”
But critics of the marriage decision compare Obergefell to a different Supreme Court ruling: Roe vs. Wade in 1973, which ended the state-by-state debate over abortion by legalizing it nationwide. Unlike interracial marriage, the abortion battle continues today.
In April, during oral arguments in the same-sex marriage cases, Chief Justice John Roberts warned against judicial intervention into disputes over social values, saying that “closing of debate can close minds … and have consequences on how this new institution is accepted.”
“I think that those sentiments were very wise, and there could easily be that backlash underway in some quarters,” said Kent Ostrander, executive director of the Family Foundation of Kentucky. “By the way, I’m not encouraging that backlash. We’re just trying to make sure the Obergefell decision does not encroach upon anyone’s sincerely held beliefs.”
In follow-up interviews, some poll respondents said gay marriage in recent years started to appear inevitable and not as threatening as it once did.
“It’s just — look, life goes on, so you gotta be fair to people,” said Charles Key, 72, a retiree in Shepherdsville. “Out in Hollywood, you’ve got men turning into women on television, so what’s the difference? It’s gonna happen; it’s not hurting us any. Move on.”
Those who oppose the court’s decision said Kentucky should not surrender its traditional values just because more liberal states have chosen to.
Glen Smith of Pineville said he’s ordinarily a loyal Democrat, but he’s not sure he will vote for Conway this fall. Smith said he’s troubled that Conway accepts same-sex marriage and, as attorney general, refused to represent Kentucky in its appeals to defend its gay marriage ban.
“I don’t like that same-sex stuff,” said Smith, 45. “I just ain’t for it. I was raised a Christian. I hope they can fix it so where the clerks don’t have to issue any marriage licenses to the gays who are wanting them.”