By John Cheves

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis may continue withholding marriage licenses to local couples for now, a federal judge ruled Monday.

In an order handed down late in the day, U.S. District Judge David Bunning said he would not delay his previous order telling Davis to resume issuing marriage licenses, which she has refused to do since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage on June 26. But in the next sentence, he delayed the new order while the clerk appeals.

The move effectively gives Davis the reprieve she sought.

Bunning essentially put the case on hold for a week or more until the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals can decide whether to intervene. He did so "in recognition of the constitutional issues involved and realizing that emotions are running high on both sides of the debate."

At the Rowan County courthouse Monday, Davis referred questions to her attorneys at Liberty Counsel, a religious advocacy group.

"We're very pleased with the results at this stage," said Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel. "We will file a motion with the 6th Circuit to extend the stay while we appeal."

Davis has refused to issue any marriage licenses, citing her religious objections to gay marriage. A half-dozen local couples who want to wed are suing her.

The case could be the first in the country to weigh a public official's freedom of religion against her constituents' right to marry in the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark decision allowing gay marriage.

Last week, Bunning issued a sternly written preliminary injunction ordering Davis to resume issuing marriage licenses, ruling that she must perform her official duties as the law defines them. Davis appealed to the 6th Circuit and asked Bunning to "stay," or delay, his order until the higher court could act.

In Monday's order, Bunning said Davis was unlikely to succeed in her appeal or suffer "irreparable harm" if she is forced to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, and he said the couples suing her seemed likely to prevail in the end. Accordingly, Bunning denied the clerk's request for a stay -- but he temporarily stayed that order, without much further explanation.

"It almost seems like a double negative," said Joe Dunman, one of the lawyers for the couples suing Davis.

Dunman said his clients were unhappy about additional delays in their wedding plans. However, he said, it's likely the 6th Circuit will deny Davis' appeal and return the case to Bunning, where the clerk might face penalties for resisting.

"We would point out that nowhere has the judge said she can violate his preliminary injunction," Dunman said. "His injunction is still in force. So I would definitely not read this as saying she is off the hook. ... We have not ruled out a motion for her to be found in contempt."

Meanwhile, Rowan County remains the center of a national debate for a while longer. Some residents said Monday that they've already been chagrined by coverage of their community's marriage fight in The New York Times, on CNN and elsewhere.

This Eastern Kentucky county shares, in part, the rural, conservative leaning of its regional neighbors. But the county seat is home to Morehead State University and clusters of academics and folk artists. In 2008, Rowan County voted for Barack Obama over John McCain, putting it in a distinct minority in Kentucky.

"Most of the people who talk to me say they wish this was over and they wish Kim would just do her job," said Judge-Executive Walter Blevins Jr. "Folks in the business community and at the university, I think they're worried it puts a bad light on Rowan County not being welcoming to all people."

Outside on the courthouse lawn, five protestors from the newly created Rowan County Rights Coalition waved signs urging Davis to do her job as clerk. Passing cars occasionally honked their support.

"Here in Morehead, we have a fairness ordinance (protecting the civil rights of gays and lesbians) that our city council passed unanimously in 2013," said Mary Hargis, a retired state worker holding a sign that read "Obey the law."

"So to have a county official on her own turn around and negate all that progress by making us look like backward, inbred hillbillies, she's just reinforcing all the stereotypes people had about us, anyway," Hargis said. "Seth Meyers was making jokes about us on national TV. He said in Kentucky, they won't give marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but they obviously don't have a problem with same-family couples. So -- ugh -- thanks for that."

(c)2015 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)