I have been following with interest the events in Rowan County, Kentucky. Since the Supreme Court handed down their decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26th legalizing same-sex marriage, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses. Davis has cited her sincerely held religious beliefs as an Apostolic Christian, specifically her opposition to homosexuality, as the reason why she should be exempted from issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples.
Represented by the ultra-conservative Liberty Counsel, Davis took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. On August 31st they declined to stay the United States District Court’s ruling that Davis must issue marriage licenses to all applicants. In response, Davis continued to refuse to issue licenses, arguing that she was acting “under God’s authority.” In a statement earlier this week Davis declared:
“To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision.”
Finally, on September 3rd Davis was jailed by Federal District Judge David L. Bunning for contempt of court. Bunning ordered Davis’ deputy clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses, which they did the following day.
I have no doubt that Davis’ beliefs are deeply and passionately felt. Nevertheless, for several reasons, her actions are wrong.
First of all, there is a question of hypocrisy on Davis’ part. She has been married four times to three different men. As reported by U.S. News and World Report:
“She gave birth to twins five months after divorcing her first husband. They were fathered by her third husband but adopted by her second. Davis worked at the clerk’s office at the time of each divorce and has since remarried.”
I am not a Christian. Nevertheless I know how to use Google. After conducting a quick search I came across this passage:
“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:32
Davis’ attorney argued that whatever her past sins, when she converted to Apostolic Christianity four years ago it wiped the slate clean, and she has been a God-fearing, righteous woman since then. That’s more than a bit convenient! But let’s go with that. Even if that was the case, are we to believe that Davis didn’t issue any marriage licenses to divorced people since she found God? If she now values the sanctity of matrimony so much, shouldn’t she be denying not just gay people licenses but also people who were previously married?
Second, the argument that she should not have to perform the duties of her job because they violate her ethical and moral beliefs is nonsensical. Most people will be able to tell you about occasions when their jobs required them to perform tasks that they found onerous.
Speaking from personal experience, I worked at a health insurance company for seven years. On several occasions that company canceled group short term disability policies held by businesses because they had too many claims. I was told to inform those businesses that A) their policy was canceled and B) they still had to send us their past due premiums. I thought it was wrong to cancel policies like that. But I did what my bosses told me to because I had bills to pay and I did not want to get fired. I did not say to them “I refuse to perform my job because what you are asking me to do is against my personal moral beliefs, but I expect you to still keep me on as an employee.” If I had really felt that strongly then I should have just resigned.
And that is what Davis should have done. If you believe that you cannot perform your job without violating your “sincerely held religious beliefs” then quit and find a new job that will not present that conflict.
Just imagine if a situation similar to this occurred with, say, an ultra-conservative Muslim man who worked for the Department of Motor Vehicles. Suppose that Muslim refused to issue drivers licenses to women due to his religious beliefs. I fully expect that the same ultra right-wing conservatives who are championing Davis’ cause would be utterly aghast at this. They would be screaming in horror about “Sharia law” and predicting the downfall of America. But because Davis is a white Christian woman she is a “martyr” whose religious liberty is being trampled, or some such nonsense.
As for why Davis doesn’t just quit and find a new job, per the Lexington Herald-Leader, there is this:
“County clerk jobs are worth quite a bit. Davis earns about $80,000 a year in a county where per capita income is about $15,600 and median household income just under $30,000, according to recent numbers from the U.S. Census.”
Davis wants to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to follow the dictates of her faith and keep her well-paying position. In this matter another Bible verse immediately comes to mind:
“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” – Matthew 6:24
Third, Davis and her lawyers argued that gay couples simply travel to the next county and obtain marriage licenses there. To which I would respond, why should same sex couples be subjected to an inconvenience that heterosexual couples do not have to deal with? And let us say that these couples did travel to the next county to obtain licenses. What happens if they get there and that county’s clerk, due to his or her “sincerely held religious beliefs”, also decides not to issue them licenses? How far do these couples have to travel before it becomes utterly unreasonable? Fifty miles? One hundred miles? Five hundred miles? How much is too much?
In any case, the whole “go to the next county” argument is more than a bit reminiscent of segregation. It is like a black person being told “No, you cannot use this water fountain, it is for whites only, but there’s another water fountain out back that you’re allowed to use.” Simply put, that is humiliating. It is an affront to basic human dignity.
Fourth, and most important, the United States is not a theocracy. We have a very clear separation of church and state.
On September 3 the Anti-Defamation League issued the following statement:
“Many of us make important decisions in our daily lives grounded in our religious values and beliefs. That should be respected, even perhaps, applauded. However when one chooses to take an oath of office or accepts a position as a public official in a secular constitutional democracy like ours, she has a responsibility to do the job she was hired to do. Rowan County Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis’s job requires her to issue marriage licenses to anyone who may legally get married.
Likewise, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear stated that upon being elected Davis swore an oath of office to perform her duties. Therefore:
“Neither your oath nor the Supreme Court dictates what you must believe. But as elected officials, they do prescribe how we must act.”
Davis’ religious freedoms are not being suppressed or discriminated against. She still has the right to go to church and worship God in the manner she wishes. She is not being asked to change her mind about gay marriage. When she is not at work she is free to get on a soapbox and preach to the world about the supposed evils of homosexuality, or to spend all her free time campaigning for the passage of a Constitutional amendment outlawing same sex marriages.
But when Davis is in the County Clerk’s office, acting in an official capacity as an agent of the state, she must perform the duties of her job. Either that or she must resign.
Yes, some laws are bad and should be fought. But there are proper methods to challenge unjust statues, by court actions, peaceful protest and civil disobedience. A person cannot simply argue “This law is wrong, I refuse to follow it, and I am going to perform my job the way I personally believe it should be done. Now go away and leave me alone.”
If Davis is accommodated in this case it would set a dangerous precedent. Imagine if any government employee could refuse to follow orders or perform their duties due to ethical or religious concerns? The result would be complete chaos.
Perhaps you may be wondering why I, as a heterosexual male, feel so passionately about this. Why am I happy about the Supreme Court’s decision in June? Why am I so alarmed by the actions of Kim Davis and others like her?
Well, in addition to actually possessing empathy for other human beings and feeling distress at seeing others denied equality, there is also my personal background. I was born & raised Jewish. Growing up I learned all about the immense suffering and discrimination that Jews experienced over the centuries in countries that had an official state religion. I am a very firm believer in the separation of church and state.
So when I see the rational for denying gay couples the right to marry as “God defined marriage as between a man and a woman” or “the Bible says homosexuality is a sin,” no, I am not going to stand for it. Keep your religion out of my government.