Let’s imagine, shall we?
I belong to a group, Friends of a Feather, that reveres chickens. My likeminded friends and I find them to be fowls by which enlightened beings can model their lives; we hold these birds in the highest esteem, study them, care for flocks.
I need a job (somebody’s got to support all my sacred chickens, after all). With my degree in animal science, I eventually find a position at a chicken farm, The Happy Cluck. Hooray! Cash plus my passion all rolled into one job seems like a perfect employment scenario.
Except after some time, my employer asks me to place certain chickens into solitary confinement because of an outbreak of disease. Knowing the social nature of these birds, I feel this is fundamentally wrong. There’s no way I’m going to subject my beloved chickens to what I consider inhumane conditions. I tell my employer that I will happily continue to work on other aspects of my job but I won’t separate chickens, ever. My beliefs from Friends of a Feather prohibit my taking this action.
My boss is very happy with my work up to this point but, unfortunately, The Happy Cluck simply doesn’t have the budget to employ another worker. Though she doesn’t share my feelings, she respects my right to have them, but she fires me because she must now find a worker who can fulfill the position .
I’m saddened (and desperate to find a job). In the meantime, I form an activist group and do everything in my power to halt avian mistreatment at The Happy Cluck — how happy can it be for those chickens there, anyway?
County Clerks, Marriage Licenses, and Religious Beliefs
That’s a pretty simple scenario, not completely unlike the one in which county clerk Kim Davis finds herself. Davis is the elected official who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Kentucky because of her Apostolic Christian faith. She believes the Bible tells her marriage can only exist between a man and a woman.
The Supreme Court has defined marriage otherwise, as a right guaranteed to all American citizens by our Constitution. Now, the Supreme Court is the ultimate authority on constitutional interpretation in the U.S.; it’s why the ruling handed out on June 26, 2015 was celebrated as such a defining moment.
County clerks, however, do not interpret the law. Their job is handling records, collecting fines, issuing documents…they’re literally CLERKS (defined by the esteemed Merriam-Webster as “a person whose job is to keep track of records and documents for a business or office; an elected or appointed official whose job is to take care of official papers and business for a court or government”), not lawyers or justices.
As an elected official, Davis sought the position. She wanted the job, understood the duties involved, and took this oath:
“I, ….., do swear that I will well and truly discharge the duties of the office of ………….. County Circuit Court clerk, according to the best of my skill and judgment, making the due entries and records of all orders, judgments, decrees, opinions and proceedings of the court, and carefully filing and preserving in my office all books and papers which come to my possession by virtue of my office; and that I will not knowingly or willingly commit any malfeasance of office, and
will faithfully execute the duties of my office without favor, affection or partiality, so help me God.”
Lately, Davis seems to be focusing on “according to the best of my skill and judgement” as the reasoning behind dodging her official duty of executing the letter of the law. Really? No one would want a county clerk who failed to issue pistol permits because of her personal beliefs. Wouldn’t you hate going in to pick up a building permit only to have the bureaucrat there inform you that, for personal reasons (like she doesn’t approve of your religion), it’s been denied? It’s like having pharmacists decide which prescriptions meet their approval and only filling those (ahem).
What Do the Courts Say?
While Davis has every right to her personal beliefs and every right as a private citizen to fight for them, she does not have the right to dictate what of her sworn position she chooses to fulfill on behalf of the constituency who elected her. Sure, she can refuse to do her job, but usually that comes with the consequence of losing said job.
As a boss, would you put up with a receptionist who only served clients who met her religious criteria? (You might, but that would be illegal, not to mention bad for business.)
According to Jonathan Adler of the Washington Post, Justice Scalia, one of the conservatives who dissented on the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling (that’s the same-sex marriage decision), addressed the topic–public officials who can’t reconcile their personal beliefs with public obligations–back in 2002 (“Justice Scalia Explained Why Kim Davis Should Issue Marriage Licenses to Same-Sex Couples or Find a New Job”). Adler explains Scalia’s position on this topic with an analogy: A person who is morally opposed to war has the right to be a conscientious objector, even avoiding a legal draft, but does not have the right to assume a military position knowing those personal beliefs would conflict with executing duties should the country go to war.
The argument makes sense. There’s no question about whether Davis is going to perform her duties; she’s refused. It seems to me that, if she cannot or will not execute a county clerk’s duties, Davis is ethically obligated to vacate her position. Taxpayers are owed an official who will actually do the work involved.
Now, this is the point in an op-ed piece where the author scoffs at the literal nature of Davis’ faith, quotes some obscure Bible verses, and asks, “Would any sane person follow this as written?” Leviticus is a great resource, with his laundry list of items dictated to Moses by God, many of which have no relevance whatsoever to our modern lives.
But that kind of dismissive japing is just pulling the wagons into a hateful circle. Let’s applaud Kim Davis for being willing to stand up for her convictions; let’s kindly encourage her to embrace the consequences of failing to perform as clerk; and let’s respectfully escort her into the private realm, where she can avoid same-sex marriage as she chooses.
Perhaps we can encourage her to take to heart these words from the New Testament.
Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:10)
I can’t think of anything that more exemplifies love than seeking a license to connect yourself to another for eternity.
Let’s work to get love–and the law–fulfilled.