Republican contenders begin to take sides in Kim Davis 'religious freedom' dispute
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis (YouTube)

Republican presidential candidates were split over whether a county clerk in Kentucky, who was jailed on Thursday, should be forced to issue same-sex marriage licenses despite her religious objections.

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in June that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry upset many conservatives, who believe marriage should be restricted to heterosexual couples.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis became a cultural flashpoint for refusing to issue marriage licenses after the ruling, citing her faith. On Thursday, a federal judge held Davis in contempt of court and sent her to jail.

Her case has caused a rift among the cadre of candidates seeking the Republican nomination in the November 2016 election, a split that shows a difficult path to attract religious conservatives and other wings of the party that are less focused on social issues.

Several of the 17 Republican presidential hopefuls said on Thursday that Davis should not have been punished.

"I think it's absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberty," U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky told CNN on Thursday. "I think this is a real mistake."

Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, said on Twitter he would travel to Kentucky to support Davis. On Facebook, he wrote, "The Supreme Court is not the supreme branch and it's certainly not the supreme being."

Other candidates said they shared Davis's religious convictions but felt that as a public official she was bound to uphold the law.

"This clerk, I understand her concerns. I believe in traditional marriage, but she's a public official," Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told MSNBC. "In my view, she will be required by the federal courts to issue marriage licenses."

Former business executive Carly Fiorina has made similar arguments, though she indicated on Twitter that she thought sending Davis to jail was too harsh a punishment.

Some Republicans, such as front-runner Donald Trump and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, did not weigh in Thursday.

Davis wound up in court after months of legal wrangling that drew attention from politicians and pundits on both sides of the marriage issue.

Democrats have largely been united since the Supreme Court's ruling. A White House spokesman called the judge's decision "appropriate."

"Marriage equality is the law of the land," tweeted Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner. "Officials should be held to their duty to uphold the law - end of story."