On Friday, the Vatican said Pope Francis‘ recent private meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, was not an endorsement. But the clerk’s lawyers dispute the statement, holding that Francis’ reported words about “conscientious objection” are indicative of the pontiff’s support.
“The meeting was a pastoral meeting to encourage Kim Davis in which Pope Francis thanked her for her courage and told her to ‘stay strong,’ ” Davis’ lawyer Mat Staver, of Liberty Counsel, said in a statement posted on the counsel’s website on Friday.
“His words and actions support the universal human right to conscientious objection.”
The dispute came just hours after the Vatican released a statement saying that Davis was among dozens who briefly met the pope and the two did not discuss her controversial situation.
CNN reported on Friday that the pope met with an openly gay couple the day before he met Davis.
“Three weeks before the trip, he called me on the phone and said he would love to give me a hug,” said Yayo Grassi, who was one of the pope’s students when he taught at Inmaculada Concepcion, a Catholic high school in Sante Fe, Argentina, from 1964-1965.
Grassi said that the pontiff has known that he was gay and he previously met with him and his partner, Iwan Bagus, in Rome.
“He has never been judgmental,” Grassi said. “He has never said anything negative.”
“Obviously he is the pastor of the church and he has to follow the church’s teachings,” Grassi added. “But as a human being he understands all kinds of situations, and he is open to all kinds of people, including those with different sexual characteristics.”
Christopher J. Hale, the executive director for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good said that the pontiff’s meeting with a gay couple should end speculation about his supposed support for Davis.
“Pope Francis never ceases to surprise us,” Hale said in a statement to PEOPLE. “The news that Francis met with a gay couple should put to rest any notion that Pope Francis is held down by the narrow ideological divisions that plague the United States. He is first and foremost a pastor who is willing to encounter and engage anyone.”
Meanwhile, an Esquire writer, Charles P. Pierce, has questioned whether the pontiff was duped into meeting with Davis by the more conservative members of the Catholic church.
The political writer theorized that Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the papal nuncio to the United States, organized the meeting in an attempt to “put [the pontiff] in a box” and enlisted “Davis’s publicity-hungry legal team in that effort.”
The opposing statements from the Vatican and Davis’ lawyers paint a murky picture of the private papal meeting.
Although Davis’s lawyers hold that they never said “the meeting was an endorsement of her legal case,” they contend that it was hardly a chance meeting.
In the statement, Davis’ lawyers said the private meeting had been arranged about one week before the two met – on the day she returned to work after being released from jail – and a Vatican official confirmed the Sept. 24 meeting one day before it actually took place.
“Kim and Joe Davis were picked up by security at the hotel and driven to the Vatican Embassy,” lawyers said in the statement. “Kim and Joe Davis waited for a private meeting with the pope. There were no other people in the room.”
Davis previously told ABC News that her meeting with the pope was a great encouragement and “just knowing that the pope is on track with what we’re doing it kinda validates everything.”
That statement has caused some to speculate whether the meeting was about Davis’ refusal to issue the marriage licenses, but her lawyers said that the subject of her legal case never came up at the meeting and her statement about feeling “validated” was in reference to the pontiff’s advice for her to “stay strong.”
Presidential hopeful (and Davis supporter) Mike Huckabee weighed in on the controversy in an interview with CNN on Friday, noting that a car was sent for Davis and the meeting was “very personal, very private.”
“Maybe there’s just a feeling that the Vatican doesn’t want to engage in controversy, but I think the pope made it clear that he does support religious liberty,” the former Arkansas governor said.
“He does support the notion that a person has her right to express their conscious and he called it, by the way, not a religious right, but a human right.”
• Reporting by SANDRA SOBIERAJ-WESTFALL