I had not originally planned on commenting here about the controversy surrounding Kim Davis, the court clerk in Kentucky who was refusing to issue marriage licenses to anyone because she disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year legalizing gay marriages. Not because I don’t have an opinion on the subject (come on, you know better than that) but, rather, because I'm actually kind of tired of listening to everyone else talk about it.
There had already been so much discussion on the issue elsewhere - in the news, on the Internet and on the street - that I simply did not feel I had anything to add that had not already been said by someone somewhere. Then on Tuesday, the same judge who had ordered to to be jailed now ordered that she be released - but also that she was not to interfere with the issuance of marriage licenses - and I’ll admit that a part of me naively hoped that might be the end of it. (Yeah, I know - I ought to know better than that.)
But I’ve had so many people over the past week stop me and ask for my opinion on the subject that I finally decided - albeit somewhat reluctantly - that maybe I should go ahead and speak my piece after all, if for no other reason than to get it on record for everyone to see so that we can all move on to other topics. Especially the ones that I'd rather talk about.
So for the benefit of those who actually seem to care what I think on the matter, here it is. Don't say I didn’t warn you...
A person’s personal beliefs - be they religious, political, or cultural - are their own. They can’t be legislated; they can’t be taken away. Some governments have tried to do so over the eons of human existence, but ultimately those efforts never seem to go well.
In this country, at least, we are free to believe what we want and to express those beliefs when we feel moved to do so. We are entitled to our opinions. And we are entitled to say so when we disagree with someone else’s opinion. It behooves us to do everything within our power to keep such disagreements as civil as possible, and unfortunately too many of us are not always too successful at living up to that responsibility. But this is America, by golly, and so each of us is free to believe what we wish to believe, and to act in accordance with those beliefs - so long as acting in accordance with those beliefs is not done in such a manner that it does harm to someone, or in a way that violates the law.
Ultimately this controversy is not really about freedom of religion, or whether gay marriage is right or wrong. It is about one individual's refusal to live up to the oath of office she took when she was sworn in as an elected official, which is at best a dereliction of duty and, at worst, something that in certain situations (not in this specific instance, obviously, but certainly in some circumstances) could in fact be considered an act of treason.
So here’s the thing about Kim Davis: If she has an honest, deeply-held conviction in opposition to the concept of gay marriage based on her religious beliefs, that’s perfectly fine. As a citizen of the U.S. she's entitled to that. Others are equally entitled to disagree with her. This IS America, after all. That's one of the principles that the country was founded upon.
BUT - and this is a crucial "But" - as an elected official and an officer of the court, she does NOT have the authority to pick and choose what laws she will obey and which ones she will ignore. When she was sworn into office she took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and that of the state of Kentucky. That means operating in accordance with ALL laws, including those which she may not personally agree with, regardless of the reason for that disagreement.
And if she finds that her oath to uphold those laws creates any kind of moral or philosophical conflict with regard to her personal beliefs, to the point where she feels she cannot in all good conscience perform the duties that are required of her, then she should resign the position and allow the election or appointment of someone who CAN and WILL do the job in accordance with that oath of office.
When Davis was ordered to appear in court on Sept. 3, she told the judge that this particular requirement of her job is at odds with her personal religious beliefs. I accept that as an honest expression of her thought process, and make no judgment with regard to those beliefs. But if that is indeed the case, then the solution is simple: Step down.
I am not a government employee, and so I cannot answer the question "What would YOU do?" from that perspective. However, I CAN unequivocally state that I certainly would not stay at ANY job - government or otherwise - where I felt I was expected to perform tasks or services that may be so contrary to my personal beliefs and convictions as to cause the kind of crisis of conscience Davis said she suffered. I have, in fact, quit a couple of jobs in my life for just that very reason.
Indeed, one of my sons also quit a job that he for the most part enjoyed, for the very reason that something that had happened to a co-worker went against some strongly held convictions he has about how people should be treated with basic respect and dignity. Again, he was taking a stand for something he believes, and I applauded him for it at the time - in spite of the fact that it left him without income for the moment.
If Davis feels that strongly that her conscience will not let her do the job that she was elected to do, the obvious course of action is to quit. If she had just done that in the first place, she wouldn't be in jail right now and I’d be writing about something else at the moment.
When I shared these thoughts with a friend the other day, her response was: “But doesn’t she have freedom of religion?” And my answer was: Of course she does! As Americans we all do. But that freedom does not give her the right to willfully break the law, anymore than it gives someone the right to shoot at a mosque or synagogue or ignite bombs at the Boston Marathon because of differences in religious ideology.
But again, this is not really a "freedom of religion" issue, even though that's the way some people are portraying it. I've always been a vocal advocate for freedom of religion. But to me "freedom of religion" means freedom to follow ANY religion one wishes to, whether they be Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or the Jedi Order, or the Brotherhood of Pink Mastodons, or whatever. The American concept of freedom of religion was never meant to apply to Christianity alone. And whatever religion one chooses to belong to as an American, the freedom to do so does not exclude people from following the law.
Regardless of what you or I or anyone else feels regarding the legitimacy of Kim Davis' point of view on the subject of gay marriage, the fact remains that she violated her oath of office. As far as I'm concerned, that is the ONLY issue really at issue here; anything else is, in my mind, an attempt to deflect from that issue.
When a soldier, sailor or airman willfully disobeys a lawful order, or in some other fashion violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he or she is subject to penalty - up to and including imprisonment, depending on the nature of the specific violation. The same is true for law enforcement officers, teachers and school administrators and clergymen who are found to have acted in violation of the law and whatever oaths they may have taken as part of their jobs. So why should it be any different for elected officials - even local officials like a county court clerk?
The simple answer is: It shouldn’t.
Here, to me, is the bottom line: Kim Davis’s continued refusal to perform her job in accordance with the oath that she took when she was sworn into office, even after she was brought before a judge, is more than simply an act of discrimination and intolerance on her part against a particular segment of our society, as those who oppose her and feel they are being discriminated against insist; or a matter of her simply "sticking to her guns" and standing up for her personal beliefs and convictions, as her supporters argue.
It is in fact a willful and deliberate breaking of the law that she took an oath to uphold - a legal violation that she has not only admitted to, but has acknowledged that she will continue to commit - and as such makes her subject to, and deserving of, whatever punishment is deemed appropriate by the law.
As far as I’m concerned, it's as simple as that.
Copyright 2015 by John Allen Small
In : Opinion