MOREHEAD, Ky. (AP) — Invoking "God's authority," a county clerk denied marriage licenses to gay couples again Tuesday in direct defiance of the federal courts, and vowed not to resign, even under the pressure of steep fines or jail.
"It is not a light issue for me," Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis said later through her lawyers. "It is a Heaven or Hell decision."
April Miller and Karen Roberts, tailed by television cameras and rival activists, were there when the doors opened Tuesday morning, hours after the Supreme Court rejected the clerk's last-ditch request for a delay.
They said they hoped Davis would accept that her fight was lost and issue the licenses, ending the months-long controversy that has divided Rowan County, where the seat of Morehead is considered a progressive haven in Appalachian Kentucky.
Instead, Davis once again turned them away. On their way out, Miller and Roberts passed David Ermold and David Moore, 17 years a couple. "Denied again," Roberts whispered in Moore's ear.
Ermold said he almost wept. They demanded to talk to Davis, who emerged briefly on the other side of the counter.
"We're not leaving until we have a license," Ermold told her.
"Then you're going to have a long day," Davis replied.
Davis, an Apostolic Christian, stopped issuing all marriage licenses in June rather than comply with the Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage nationwide.
Gay and straight couples sued, saying she should fulfill her duties as an elected official despite her personal religious faith. U.S. District Judge David Bunning ordered her to issue the licenses, an appeals court affirmed that order, and the Supreme Court on Monday refused to intervene, leaving her no legal option to refuse.
And yet, she did.
"Stand firm," Davis' supporters chanted as a tense standoff erupted in the lobby.
"Do your job," marriage equality activists shouted back.
Davis retreated into her inner office, closed the door and shut the blinds. The sheriff moved everyone outside, where demonstrators lined up to shout and sing at each other.
Davis knows she faces stiff fines or even jail if the judge finds her in contempt, her lawyer said. Her supporters compared her Tuesday to the Biblical figures Paul and Silas, imprisoned for their faith and rescued by God.
But the couples' lawyers asked that she not be sent to jail, and instead be fined, since she currently collects her salary — $80,000 a year — while failing to perform her duties. They asked the judge to "impose financial penalties sufficiently serious and increasingly onerous" to "compel her immediate compliance without delay."
Bunning ordered Davis and her six deputy clerks to appear before him Thursday morning at the federal courthouse in Ashland.
Davis also faces a potential state charge of official misconduct, a misdemeanor meant for public servants who refuse to perform their duties. Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, now running as the Democratic nominee for governor, is studying a complaint filed by a couple she turned away, and will decide whether to appoint a special prosecutor.
Davis said she never imagined this day would come.
"I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God's Word," her statement said.
Her critics mock this moral stand, noting that Davis is on her fourth husband after being divorced three times.
Joe Davis, who described himself as "an old redneck hillbilly," came by to check on his wife Tuesday. It's been an ordeal, he said. She got death threats and they've had to change their phone number. He pointed to the people calling for gay rights on the courthouse lawn.
"They want us to accept their beliefs and their ways," he said. "But they won't accept our beliefs and our ways."
Mat Staver founded the Liberty Counsel, a Christian law firm that represents Davis. He said she had been a sinner until she went to church four years ago when her mother-in-law died. She was born again after the preacher read a Bible passage about how forgiveness grows from the grace of God, he said.
"She's made some mistakes," he said. "She's regretful and sorrowful. That life she led before is not the life she lives now. She asked for and received forgiveness and grace. That's why she has such a strong conscience."
Davis served as her mother's deputy for 27 years before she was elected as a Democrat to succeed her in November. Davis' own son is on the staff. As an elected official, she can be removed only if the Legislature impeaches her, which is unlikely in a deeply conservative state.
Davis' supporters blame Gov. Steve Beshear, who ordered resistant clerks to issue licenses or resign. The Kentucky County Clerk's Association has proposed legislation to make marriage licensing a function of state government, relieving clerks of the burden.
Kentucky's Republican nominee for governor, Matt Bevin, said Tuesday that he supports Davis' "willingness to stand for her First Amendment rights," and if elected, would have people download marriage licenses on the Internet to file at clerk's offices just like other documents.
Outside the courthouse, dozens of Davis' supporters stood in a circle, singing Amazing Grace and Onward Christian Soldier.
"She's standing for God's word and we're standing with her," said Flavis McKinney.
On the other side of the courthouse lawn, others held signs reading "Hate is not a family value" and sang repurposed Christian songs: "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Gay or straight or black or white, they are precious in his sight."
Will Smith Jr. and James Yates emerged from the courthouse red-eyed and shaking, too upset to talk about being rejected again. They held hands and rushed around the protesters to reach their car.
But Moore and Ermold joined the rainbow-clad throng. They swayed and sang, pledging to come back again and again until Davis relents.
"I feel sad, I feel angry, I feel devastated," Ermold said. "I feel humiliated on such a national level that I can't comprehend it. I cannot comprehend it right now."
Sheriff Matt Sparks tried to keep everyone civilized as he stood between the two sides.
"It has disrupted our county, but it shows us that the county is, probably the country is, still divided on this issue," Sparks said. "I'm just glad we live in a country that we have the freedom to disagree. This will end eventually and we'll all come together again."
Associated Press Writer Adam Beam in Frankfort contributed to this report.