When religious beliefs collide with civic duties

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”

–Leonardo DaVinci

Somehow, this seemed very appropriate to me this week. Okay, yes, it seems appropriate it to me most of the time, but it has been calling out to me quite a bit with much of the recent news, and inflammatory bulk emails, and particularly when thinking about Kim Davis and her determination to go to jail rather than do her job.

For anyone that still doesn’t know who Kim Davis is, and what her situation is – and for those of you outside of the US who probably don’t care – Ms Davis is the County Clerk for Rowan County, which is in the state of Kentucky. On June 26th of this year, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, and the governor of Kentucky directed the state’s county clerks, who, among other duties, issue marriage licenses, to obey the law. On June 29th, Ms Davis, citing her religious beliefs, stopped issuing marriage licenses to anyone, rather than having to issue them to same-sex couples. She and the county were sued, and on August 12th, the US District Court ruled that she had to begin issuing licenses. She appealed, and on August 27th the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals declined to grant her a stay. On September 1st, the US Supreme Court also dismissed her request for a stay, and on Sept 3rd, after failing to agree to a compromise with the court, she was jailed for contempt.

Now, of course, she has become a lightning rod for opinion – agree, disagree, need a reason to hate, she found her way into many people’s consciousness. She has become a beacon for the extreme religious right – persecuted for her beliefs. But that misses the point. As does the delight over her own past, which is far from a shining example of how a good Christian, or even a good human, should live. She has apparently turned herself around, through religion, and unfortunately is now suffering from the fervor of the recently converted. Few people hold stronger opinions than reformed anythings – alcoholics, junkies, serial spouses. Whatever the vice, rehabilitation often leads to a high level of intolerance.

Anyone that knows me even a little bit, knows that I’m very serious when it comes to the US Constitution, the judicial system, basic civics, and the words of our Founding Fathers. Others’ personal opinions on the subject of marriage equality aside, we are, first and foremost a nation of laws, and by refusing to follow a court order, she has broken the law.

The only important things at play here is that Ms Davis is an elected official. One that in Kentucky apparently cannot be removed involuntarily from office without being impeached by the state legislature. This means that if she will not quit, she effectively cannot be summarily fired for non-performance of her duties. Of course there is only one duty of many that she has chosen not to perform, but as a government official she really doesn’t get to decide which ones she is willing to perform.

When she was elected to office, and in fact before then since she served as a deputy county clerk under her mother, as well, this is the oath that she took:

“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.” The fact that the oath has been administered shall be entered on the record of the Circuit Court.

By using her religious beliefs to NOT issue marriage licenses, regardless of how sincere they may be, she has violated her oath (which interestingly, invoked God, as well).

Many people get confused over the First Amendment, but the protections it offers, are not, and were never intended, to be so all-encompassing that you can say whatever you want, and not get criticized, or even fired. Or that your personal religious freedom extends to your actual refusal to do your job. Unfortunately for Ms Davis, it seems she has found an attorney who doesn’t quite get that distinction, either.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. “

Her right to believe as she chooses, and to freely practice her religion is not what’s in question. What’s is question is her willingness to do the job that she sought to be elected to, and has now chosen not to do. She is, of course, appealing her contempt ruling, but the legal basis for that appeal is not much more substantive that her appeal of the initial court decision that she resume issuing marriage licenses.

It’s hard not to appreciate, and even admire, someone standing up for their beliefs, even when we disagree, but the right thing for her to have done, in this case, was to have resigned her position since her religious beliefs prevent her from carrying out the duties that the taxpayers are paying her to do. I was also appalled when her attorney chose to compare her to Martin Luther King, Jr:

“She’s not going to resign, she’s not going to sacrifice her conscience, so she’s doing what Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, which is to pay the consequences for her decision.”

Never mind that Reverend King wasn’t a government official, so the comparison is a bit off. As was his likening of this situation to Nazi Germany and the extermination of the Jews. The hyperbole being thrown around only serves to inflame both sides, and to distract from the very simple issue involved in this case.

Yes, the battle over marriage equality will likely go on of many, many, years, but that is irrelevant to this particular legal issue. Kim Davis is not a hero, or a martyr, and if she would either do her job, or resign, she would take herself out of the spotlight that she claims to not want.
Photo of the US Supreme Court building, undated.

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4 thoughts on “When religious beliefs collide with civic duties”

  1. I had picked this up in South London and wondered at it, as you do. It seems such an obvious thing in a secular state but whenever were these things easy. The rule that someone cannot be sacked for failing to do their job, but only impeached seems strange to my eyes too but since we have few elected officials outside of mainstream politicians (recently mayors and a few police chiefs have been added to this list and even those cause much controversy) I’m not sure I’m in a position to comment. And is it only me who thinks it looks odd to take on an elected post held by your mother? One of those cases where you want to avoid any smell of nepotism – maybe I’m way off the mark.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ethics in politics? Sadly not. And yes, with everyone using this to further their own arguments, the central point of her simply not doing her job gets lost.
    Thanks for the “outsider’s” view

    Liked by 1 person

  3. From an outsider’s perspective, she knew what the conditions of her job were before she took it, and those included obeying the “laws of the land”. If any of us refused to comply with our employers business rules, we would be dismissed. I do not see the difference. She had every right to express her reasons for non-compliance, and they have every right to say that it was not a negotiable point of law.

    I would suggest that a more serious problem here is the manipulation of the events to create a divisive situation but then……… were there ever ethics in politics?

    Liked by 1 person

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