GRAYSON, Kentucky — When Kim Davis got out of jail Tuesday afternoon, it was just a shade cooler than hell outside.
Maybe it was good preparation.
Because to the thousands of people who showed up outside of the Carter County Detention Center, hell is exactly where this country is headed.
If the rest of the nation has moved on from the debate over gay marriage, it seems to just be heating up in Kentucky, the latest battlefield in the war over “religious liberty.”
Davis was released from the custody of a U.S. Marshal on Tuesday after six days in the clink, courtesy of Judge David Bunning, who ordered Davis to jail after she refused his order to issue marriage licenses to all couples, gay and straight.
The crowd erupted when presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, joined by Davis’s attorney, took to the stage and told the crowd that their hero had been freed.
Most hadn’t noticed that Davis actually came out of jail about 30 minutes early, standing largely silent as Huckabee and Matt Staver, whose Liberty Counsel has represented Davis, talked to a horde of reporters about “judicial tyranny”—never mind that the judge, a devout Catholic, was appointed by former President George W. Bush.
With Davis out of jail, the rally took on a decidedly political feel.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz walked the rope-line, shaking hands before leaving without addressing the crowd.
It was Huckabee’s event, and he intended to keep it that way.
One by one, forgotten names from the culture wars of yesteryear took the stage—Huckabee, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage—all of them warning that without God’s law, the nation is doomed.
Huckabee spoke last, railing against the U.S. Supreme Court and offering to go to jail in Davis’s stead.
“I am willing to spend the next eight years in the White House leading this country,” Huckabee said. “But I want you to know I’m willing to spend the next eight years in jail.”
Moments later, the familiar opening riffs of “Eye of the Tiger” began blaring from the speakers as Huckabee introduced the woman of the hour.
Davis, her attorney, and her husband joined Huckabee on stage, all of them holding and then raising their hands like a presidential candidate and his running mate standing on stage on the last night of a political convention.
Overwhelmed by emotion, Davis made only brief remarks, telling the adoring that she just wanted to “give God the glory.”
Then, with tears on her face, she urged the crowd to “keep on pressing.” “Don’t let down,” Davis said. “Because He is here.”
Earlier in the day, it was no cinch that Davis would be there, standing outside and breathing fresh air.
Cruz and Huckabee had come to meet with Davis in jail, with Huckabee planning to speak to the rally afterward.
But word had spread slowly earlier in the day that Bunning, the object of much posterboard scorn among the Davis supporters who had gathered, had ordered Davis’s release. Many doubted that Davis would actually leave jail Tuesday.
After all, Bunning’s order that Davis not interfere either “directly or indirectly” with the issuance of marriage licenses in Rowan County was not any different from the deal he offered her last week after he had ordered her into the custody of a federal marshal.
And despite her newfound freedom, neither Davis nor her attorney nor the politicians who came to praise her name, indicated that they planned to change a thing.
Davis barely spoke to the horde of cameras and voice recorders that surrounded her, letting Staver and Huckabee take the lead.
Staver said Davis had not and would not “violate her conscience,” and he repeated his belief that the marriage licenses issued to gay couples last week, after Davis’s incarceration, were void because she had not signed off on them.
So the press asked: Would Davis stop her deputies from issuing licenses? Staver was circumspect, saying again that Davis would not be a party to something that conflicted with her religious beliefs.
When pressed on what that meant, Staver played coy: “You’ll find out in the near future.”
Bunning’s order releasing Davis came with an order for updates from her office in Rowan County every 14 days. He said later that she will not resign the $80,000-a-year job and she plans to return to work later this week.
After Bunning ordered Davis into custody last week, he gave her six deputies a choice: Issue licenses or join their boss behind bars.
Five of the six—Davis’s son works for her at the county clerk’s office and said he would not comply—said they preferred issuing licenses to jail, and on Friday, gay couples in Rowan County got their marriage licenses.
But Staver warned again Tuesday, with Davis standing silently beside him, that those licenses were invalid.
What happens next in the standoff would appear to be up to Davis. But it certainly seems that the politicians who gathered have found an issue and a hero that they have no intention of letting slip from the headlines.
“I know there are some people who will say that this is a rally of hate. They would be wrong,” Huckabee said. “I know this, and I think I speak for you, we don’t gather here today because we hate anybody. We gather here today because we love God and this great country.”
Huckabee, who has been polling just outside of the margin of error, warned that the aforementioned “judicial tyranny” was leading to the “smoldering remains” of the United States, quoting Forrest Gump by saying that “God showed up.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin, who tried and failed to take out U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in last year’s Republican primary, implored the crowd to spread their Christian message “and bring them to the polls with you.”
Casey Davis, the Casey County clerk who is not related to Kim Davis but has also declared that he will not issue any marriage licenses, asked the crowd to pull dollars out of their pockets to cover the estimated $60,000 a day a special legislative session would cost.
Gov. Steve Beshear has rejected those calls since urging the state’s 120 county clerks to obey the Supreme Court’s decision shortly after the ruling, citing the cost and the law.
Casey Davis, who has been vocal in his opposition of the law and his support for Kim Davis, declared Tuesday that Beshear is “a warrior against Christianity.”
And then there were the signs.
“GAY Got AIDS Yet?” was one. On the other side, the sign read “AIDS: Judgment or Cure?”
“Kim Davis for president” was another. “Kentucky is the buckle that holds the Bible Belt together.”
Keith Russell, of Versailles, Kentucky, was wearing a Chik-fil-A T-shirt and handing out white styrofoam crosses.
While the last few weeks have seen courthouse demonstrations for and against Davis, Tuesday’s event was decidedly one-sided.
But there was one small pocket of people who were calling for equality and telling passers-by that “love wins.”
Whitney Dearfield and Shandon Brater, both of Grayson, were among those who were “way outnumbered.”
Brater told the Lexington Herald-Leader that Davis is “just trying to get famous.”
“This is just a breeding ground for hate, and people shouldn’t hate like that. They’re supposed to be Christians,” Brater said. “We live here in this town and the way they’ve treated some of these people is awful. I mean, some of the things they’ve said.”
Dearfield chimed in that the taxpayers pay her salary and she “should do her job.”
“I can’t go to my job and not do it because my religion interferes with it,” Dearfield said. “I would get fired.”
A third friend argued that no law had actually been passed for Davis to violate, prompting Dearfield to tell him “you need to go stand somewhere else.”
The next chapter is unknown and unwritten, but smart money says Davis has earned herself a prominent place in the stump speeches and fundraising emails of Huckabee and Cruz.
Because to those candidates, the battle for Davis’s supporters—and their votes—is just getting started.