LOUISVILLE, Ky. - (AP) — Defiant Kentucky clerk Kim Davis met briefly with Pope Francis during his historic U.S. visit, an encounter she said validates her crusade against gay marriage.
"He held out his hand to her and she grasped his hand," her attorney, Mat Staver, told The Associated Press. "He asked her to pray for him and she said she would; she asked the pope to pray for her, and he said he would."
The Vatican essentially confirmed it: The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, declined an opportunity to deny the encounter and said he would have no comment. The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, said the meeting was private and that no photos would be released.
Davis, an Apostolic Christian, became a protagonist in America's divisive culture wars when she defied the federal courts by refusing to license same-sex marriages after the Supreme Court effectively legalized them nationwide. She spent five days in jail, until her deputies agreed to issue licenses without her approval.
Davis and her husband met with Francis alone for less than 15 minutes Thursday at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C., Staver said. He wouldn't say how the meeting was arranged, citing a desire to be "deferential to the Vatican."
They chose to keep it secret until the pope left the U.S., to avoid overshadowing his visit, Staver said.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, referred questions back to the Vatican.
"It was really very humbling to even think that he would want to meet me or know me," Davis told ABC News. "Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we're doing and agreeing, you know, it kind of validates everything."
The pope has strongly upheld church teaching that a marriage is between a man and woman, but he didn't emphasize the issue during his trip because he wanted to offer a "positive" message about families to America, Lombardi told reporters.
While he repeatedly endorsed religious freedoms, some of his calls to action have been interpreted as a repudiation of Davis' insistence on keeping her job even as she refuses to violate her conscience by treating all marriage applicants equally, as the courts required.
Speaking to Congress, Francis said "it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others."
Davis was in Washington to get an award at the Values Voter Summit, where she announced that she is switching to the Republican party because she feels abandoned by Democrats.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest wouldn't comment on her meeting with the pope, but he noted that President Barack Obama said in a weekend speech that "our religious freedom doesn't grant us the freedom to deny our fellow Americans their constitutional rights."
"The president believes strongly in the rule of law and that's a principle that applies to those who are engaged in public service, starting at the level of the president of the United States but even going down all the way to the level of the Rowan County clerk in Kentucky," Earnest said.
On his flight back to the Vatican, reporters tried to press Francis clarify his position on the religious freedoms of government officials. Without mentioning Davis, the pope responded that conscientious objection is a human right.
"It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right," Francis said.
For some, the pope's decision to meet with a figure as divisive as Davis sullied the legacy of his celebratory visit.
DignityUSA, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian Catholics, called their meeting "deeply disappointing" and said it could transform the public perception "from a largely successful pastoral visit to the endorsement of an exclusionary political agenda."
"That Pope Francis met privately in Washington, D.C., with Kim Davis throws a wet blanket on the good will that the pontiff had garnered," wrote Francis DeBernardo, who runs New Ways Ministry, another Catholic organization advocating for gay rights. "The time for vagueness, ambiguity, and secret meetings is over. Pope Francis needs to state clearly where he stands in regard to the inclusion of LGBT people in the church and society."
Staver dismissed the idea that the pope's legacy has been stained by their encounter, insisting that Francis only sought to "encourage a fellow Christian who was standing for her faith."
The pope thanked Davis for her courage, told her to "stay strong" and hugged her, and blessed two rosaries, one black and one white, before presenting them to Davis and her husband, Staver said.
Rosaries are frequent gifts the pope gives to anyone he has scheduled encounters with. The Vatican travels with boxes of them on foreign trips.
Davis' parents are lifelong Catholics and she gave them the rosaries in turn; Her father said if he lives to be 200 he will never receive a better gift, Staver said.
"It was very encouraging; she was very moved by his kindness, his gentleness and his caring spirit," Staver said. "She was just overwhelmed by the meeting, humbled by it. There's not a lot of words to describe that feeling."
Davis, who has been divorced three times, said she was saved from sin four years ago while attending church at her dying mother-in-law's request, and has been a devout Christian ever since. She said she could never authorize gay marriages, but meanwhile refuses to resign.
The judge released her from jail with strict instructions not to interfere, but once she got out, she altered the marriage licenses, replacing her name with the phrase "pursuant to federal court order."
Attorneys for the couples who sued her then questioned their validity and asked the judge to order her to reissue the licenses, or consider punishing her again. That request is pending.
"He told me before he left, he said 'stay strong," Davis told ABC. "I've weighed the cost, and I'm prepared to do whatever it takes."
Contributors include Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield in Rome, Darlene Superville in Washington and Rachel Zoll in New York.