The Vatican was going to release photos of the pope holding a private meeting with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, according to a Sept. 30 email from Liberty Counsel, the law firm representing Davis.
“We were told that they would be sending them,” Charla Bansley, a spokesperson for the firm, told BuzzFeed News when we followed up that morning about the incredible claim.
Those pictures would settle a transatlantic dispute that had gripped the country by answering a question: Did the world’s most powerful living religious figure give a special audience, and arguably a de facto endorsement, to the small-town clerk fighting to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples? Liberty Counsel had insisted the meeting was private. But as many outlets reported, a Vatican spokesperson countered that Davis was merely among a group of glad-handers. It would be stunning for the Vatican to supply evidence that refutes its own version of events.
“We have been promised pictures,” Bansley said five days later when asked again about photos showing the meeting was private.
Liberty Counsel, a self-proclaimed “Christian ministry,” fights for conservative causes, mostly to block LGBT rights and diminish women’s reproductive options. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies it as a hate group — a designation Liberty Counsel says is based on a "myth." The Florida-based firm was largely unknown outside of legal, religious, and LGBT circles until this year. However, the stratospheric rise of Davis's case has elevated Liberty Counsel to mainstream notoriety, and arguably given the organization a boost of credibility — two qualities it continues to beef up while Davis remains in the press.
The public may, or may not, see photos of Davis's "private" meeting with the pope, but the very pronouncement that photos are forthcoming is the latest example of the group making tantalizing, media-generating claims that it has yet to back up with evidence.
BuzzFeed News has found several incidents in the past month where Liberty Counsel made proclamations that lacked proof or were demonstrably false.
Some are arcane legal matters — and one is a stadium-size whopper.
The judge who jailed Davis said what?
At the center of the Rowan County marriage license issue is a legal question: Are the licenses issued without Davis’s name on them still valid?
That question was debated in U.S. District Court Judge David L. Bunning’s courtroom for three hours after federal marshals led Davis away for contempt of court on Sept 3. She had refused to issue any marriage licenses due to her religious objections to same-sex couples marrying — despite Bunning ordering her to do so.
With Davis in custody, five of her deputy clerks said they would issue the licenses even though they lacked her permission. But lawyers for Liberty Counsel and public defenders for the deputy clerks questioned whether those certificates would be legit. Kentucky law says the county clerk, an elected official, must issue the licenses, and Davis is the Rowan county clerk.
But Judge Bunning didn't know, he said, and it wasn't his job to decide.
“Whether or not they're valid or not's up to you all. That's not up to the Court … I'm not taking a position on that,” he told the courtroom, including the four couples who had sued Davis. “I'm trying to get compliance with my order.” Bunning said his goal was compelling the clerk's office to issue licenses; there was no case before him about the validity of those licenses.
The next morning, the deputy clerks returned to work and issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples for the first time. However, as BuzzFeed News reported on Sept. 4, the deputy clerks decided to remove Davis's name from the portion of the form where it normally appeared, instead writing that the licenses were issued by "Rowan County."
So it was surprising when Liberty Counsel lawyer Harry Mihet announced to a group of reporters more than a week later, on Sept. 14, that Judge Bunning said the licenses without Davis’s signature were indeed valid. Where did Bunning make that statement? BuzzFeed News asked. In the Sept. 8 order Bunning used to release Davis from jail, Mihet said.
Liberty Counsel's top lawyer and founder, Mat Staver, said the same thing in a Sept. 22 press release: "Judge Bunning also said licenses issued while she was in jail without her name were valid."
The claim was repeated as fact. Several dozen media outlets, from coast to coast and north to south, ran an Associated Press article the same day that stated: "Bunning ruled those licenses were valid." CBS News folded that statement into an article on Sept. 25 that also said Bunning ruled the licenses were valid.
But Bunning did no such thing.
Rather, Bunning's Sept. 8 order stated he was “satisfied” the clerk’s office was issuing marriage licenses in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling — even though Davis’s name wasn't on the licenses. Bunning continued in a footnote, “Plaintiffs have not alleged that the alterations affect the validity of the licenses. Nor do the alterations impact the Court’s finding that the deputy clerks have complied with the Court’s Order."
There were two separate issues for Bunning — compliance with his order to issue marriage licenses and the question of whether those licenses were valid under state law — and he made that distinction clear. Nothing in his Sept. 8 order said he was conflating those issues or had reached a conclusion that compliance amounted to license validity.
BuzzFeed News asked Liberty Counsel what evidence suggested Bunning declared the licenses valid. Staver cited the footnote; he also said Gov. Steve Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway said they believed the licenses were valid despite alterations. "The point is they were altered by Brian [Mason], the Deputy Clerk, and the judge noted that fact and said his order was complied with. He was satisfied," Staver said.
Pressed further, Liberty Counsel’s Charla Bansley said of the judge, “Would he be ‘satisfied’ if they were not valid?”
Judge Bunning has not answered that question — and he's the only person who can.
“They want her scalp to hang on the wall as a trophy.”
Davis was released from jail on the condition that she not interfere with her deputy clerks issuing marriage licenses. Once she returned to her desk on Sept. 14, however, she altered the marriage licenses further. Rather than letting the forms continue to say they were issued by Rowan County, Davis edited them to state they were issued “pursuant to federal court order” by a “notary public.”
Represented by the ACLU, the four couples who originally brought the case against Davis in August filed a new motion on Sept. 21 that said making those alterations amounted to Davis interfering with her staff, and the changes could render the licenses invalid. If Davis failed to revert to earlier version of the forms, the motion said, the judge should fine her.
Staver, of Liberty Counsel, fired off a lurid statement.
"The ACLU's motion to again hold Kim Davis in contempt reveals that their interest is not the license but rather a marriage license bearing the name of Kim Davis,” Staver said. “They want her scalp to hang on the wall as a trophy."
Fox News ran a headline with that battle cry on Sept. 22: “ACLU wants Kim Davis' 'scalp to hang on the wall.'” The Associated Press distributed a story on the wire about the motion, featuring Staver's claim that the ACLU wanted Davis's name to appear on the licenses (and Staver's line about her scalp on the wall).
But the ACLU’s motion did not ask for Davis’s name on the marriage licenses.
In fact, the motion is clear that her name does not need to appear on the licenses at all. Rather, it requests the licenses be issued in the manner they were issued "on or before September 8" — the date when forms said they were issued by “Rowan County” in the field where Davis's name would normally appear. Several were issued this way while Davis was in jail and the following few days she was out of the office.
Liberty Counsel did not reply to questions from BuzzFeed News about why their statements conflicted with what the ACLU's motion actually said.
If Judge Bunning were to enforce the motion as the ACLU requested, Davis would need to remove the words “pursuant to federal court order” and “notary public." The licenses could be issued by "Rowan County" without her name anywhere on the form.
The motion also did not ask to hold Davis in contempt of court, as Liberty Counsel claimed. Rather, it said that if Davis refuses to abide by a potential order from Judge Bunning — to roll back the second round of changes to the licenses — then he should fine her to gain compliance.
That description may be more accurate, and more complicated, but it lacks the allure of saying people want to mount Davis's head like a taxidermied buck.
Liberty Counsel also makes contradictory arguments against itself — saying the altered licenses are both valid and not valid. On the one hand, Liberty Counsel has argued that licenses without Davis’s name are void: She did not authorize them, because doing so would violate her faith, and as such they're worthless.
Yet on the other, Liberty Counsel argues the licenses are definitely valid — according to the judge, the governor, and the attorney general. By making that argument, Liberty Counsel contends Davis is not interfering with her deputies by altering those licenses and she cannot be held in contempt of court. Under this paradoxical argument, Liberty Counsel argues that Davis is sticking by her moral convictions but cannot go back to jail.
In the last few weeks, Davis has been free to do interviews with Good Morning America, Fox News, and ABC News — the latter with Staver sitting by her side.
Something terrible was said, but not by The View.
In September, Staver said twice on Liberty Counsel’s radio program, Faith and Freedom, that someone on ABC's popular TV talk show The View had called for Davis to be killed. “Kim has received just horrible death threats, even from The View,” he said on Sept. 16. “One of them said that someone ought to go kill her.” The next day he added on the show again, “People on The View were calling her a monster, calling [for] her to be killed.”
Nobody on The View called for people to kill Davis. But someone on HLN — a totally different channel under a different owner than ABC — did joke they would kill Davis.
Bansley, the Liberty Counsel spokesperson, blamed Staver’s two misstatements on a mix-up he had while appearing on Fox News. The show played clips from two shows back-to-back. In one clip, Michelle Collins on The View called Davis a monster. In the other, Mike Catherwood, a radio personality, said on HLN’s Dr. Drew show, “Like Mike Huckabee says, ‘Sign me up.’ I’ll do it. I’ll go kill her. I’ll go kill her and — and whatever toothless redneck…”
Bansley explained that Staver “could not see the video because he was on an LTN link, and understandably thought Catherwood’s statement occurred on The View.”
Was there a 100,000-person Peruvian “prayer rally” for Kim Davis?
Staver stood onstage at the Values Voter Summit in September and showed the crowd a photo. He claimed it depicted 100,000 people holding a prayer rally for Davis in a Peruvian soccer stadium.
In the days that followed, the Twitter account DCHomos and the website ThinkProgress insisted the photo was fake — it looked like a different event. BuzzFeed News pressed Liberty Counsel repeatedly for evidence that the photo was indeed a prayer rally for Davis.
The group stood by its story. Bansley told BuzzFeed News, "We verified the event several times with our contacts in Peru. We stand by our statement.” The group changed its story slightly on Sept. 28, saying in a press release that "the actual photograph was a different soccer stadium in Northern Peru on September 13.”
Then the original photo was found on a Facebook page. It was not taken at a prayer rally for Davis; it was from an entirely different event in 2014. Liberty Counsel said on Sept. 29 that the photo was an “honest mistake,” yet the group did not back down.
Liberty Counsel stood by the underlying claim that “prayer meetings did occur throughout Peru” in a Sept. 29 statement to reporters. BuzzFeed News asked which city in Northern Peru a prayer rally happened and if there was any evidence — anything at all — that a prayer rally occurred anywhere. But the group went silent.
In Staver’s last public comments on the matter, in the same statement, he said, “We have no reason to puff the Kim Davis story."
Later that same day, Liberty Counsel boasted that Davis had a “private” meeting with the pope.
Where are the photos that prove the meeting was private?
“We will publish them as soon as we receive them, but with all of the controversy...” Bansley’s email trailed off.
On Oct. 14, Liberty Counsel sent a new press release that included circumstantial evidence — such as photos from inside the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C. — that they said suggested Davis met the pope privately.
"The Vatican has now released photographs of the Pope's visit, including September 24 at the Vatican Embassy," Liberty Counsel said. "The 22 pages of pictures show that the Pope did meet with a group of people, but there is no picture of Kim Davis. ... Rev. Thomas Rosica, a priest in Canada who assists Lombardi but who was not present, hypothesized that Kim was merely part of a large group in a receiving line, but the photographs prove him wrong. Kim was not part of a large group, nor was she in a receiving line."
But there were still no photos of the pope actually meeting with Kim Davis.
Judge Bunning's order:
Dominic Holden is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Dominic Holden at email@example.com.
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