By ADAM BEAM
GRAYSON, Ky. (AP) - The county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples was released Tuesday after five days behind bars, emerging to a tumultuous welcome from hundreds of cross-waving supporters.
"All has been well," said Kim Davis, standing next to both her lawyer and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Asked whether it was worth it, she smiled and nodded yes.
At the same time, her lawyer refused to say whether she would defy the courts again.
"Kim cannot and will not violate her conscience," said Mat Staver, founder of the Liberty Counsel, the Christian firm representing Davis. As for what happens next, he said only: "You'll find out in the near future."
The Rowan County clerk whose jailing helped make her a hero to the religious right walked free after the federal judge who ordered her locked up lifted the contempt order against her, saying he was satisfied that her deputies were fulfilling their obligation to grant licenses to same-sex couples in her absence.
But U.S. District Judge David Bunning also warned Davis not to interfere again.
As the news spread, a crowd of dozens of supporters who had gathered on the jailhouse lawn for what they called a rally for religious freedom swelled to hundreds. They broke into "Amazing Grace" and "God Bless America" and waved signs, flags and large white crosses.
The move came down just before Davis received jailhouse visits from both Huckabee and fellow Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz.
Davis was thrown in jail on Thursday for the boldest act of resistance by a public official yet to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that effectively legalized gay marriage across the nation.
The timing of her release came as something of a surprise. Last week, Bunning said that he might reconsider his decision to jail her in a week.
Citing "God's authority" and her deeply held belief that gay marriage is a sin, Davis, an Apostolic Christian, stopped issuing all marriage licenses in June after the Supreme Court said gay couples have a constitutional right to wed anywhere in the U.S.
Two gay couples and two heterosexual ones sued her. Bunning ordered Davis to issue the licenses, and the Supreme Court upheld his ruling. But she still refused, and was held in contempt of court and hauled off to jail in handcuffs, igniting protests from members of the religious right.
They have rallied for days outside her office, at the jail, even outside the judge's home.
Five of Davis' six deputy clerks - all except her son, Nathan Davis - agreed to issue licenses to gay couples with Davis behind bars. In lifting the contempt order, Bunning asked for updates on the five clerks' compliance every two weeks.
On Tuesday, Staver, Davis' lawyer, maintained that the licenses issued by her deputies in her absence are invalid. But Allison Martin, a spokeswoman for Kentucky's attorney general, said the office believes they are valid.
Davis' jailing has offered some of the many GOP presidential candidates an opportunity to appeal to the party's evangelical Christian wing, which opposes gay marriage and casts Davis' imprisonment as an issue of religious freedom.
Some observers viewed the candidates' visit to the jailhouse with skepticism, dismissing it as mere political posturing for two low-level candidates.
"Politicians have latched onto the cause of the day for as long as there have been politicians," said Sam Marcosson, a constitutional law professor at the University of Louisville, who has dismissed claims that religious liberty should exempt Davis from issuing licenses.
"It will do nothing whatsoever for getting Kim Davis out of jail for Mike Huckabee to appear at a rally today. But it will certainly keep the temperature hot, and it brings attention to Mike Huckabee."
On Monday, Davis's lawyers took their case to a federal appeals court, asking that Davis be allowed to remove her name and title from marriage certificates issued in Rowan County so that she would not have to act against her conscience.
Casey County Clerk Casey Davis, who recently finished riding a bike more than 400 miles across the state of Kentucky in solidarity with Kim Davis, said he was relieved she was being released. He is not related to her.
"It's been a total injustice for her being there to begin with," he said.
But he said he is still not issuing any marriage licenses, and suspects the conflict could come to his county next. He said only one same-sex couple has inquired about a marriage license in his county and was told there were no licenses being issued, and that's the last Davis heard from them.
He said he, too, would be willing to go to jail.