As has been reported by various news organizations, Rowan County KY clerk Kim Davis was led out of the federal courtroom of Judge David Bunning in Kentucky yesterday and placed in custody for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite being ordered to do so by Judge Bunning several weeks ago and despite having her appeal of that order rejected by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of the United States.
I may be stepping into a hornet’s nest with this post, but I feel compelled to share my personal interpretation of this event. It is not my intention to debate whether same-sex marriage is a biblical sin or whether it should be condoned by Christianity. My personal opinions on the subject matter are irrelevant, as are my opinions as to the rightness or wrongness of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. What matters and what should be debated is whether what Ms. Davis suffered yesterday is a legal abomination or an example of a principle that makes our country great. I believe it is the latter.
After her detention and placement into custody, several GOP presidential candidates swiftly came to Davis’s defense, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. In a statement released the same day that Ms. Davis was led away to jail, Sen. Cruz said the following:
“Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny. Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. This is wrong. This is not America.
“We are a country founded on Judeo-Christian values, founded by those fleeing religious oppression and seeking a land where we could worship God and live according to our faith, without being imprisoned for doing so.”
[As some have correctly pointed out, Rosa Parks and others may fit the definition of Christian women arrested and jailed for living according to their faith and principles.]
What Davis, Cruz, and the rest who claim this is an assault against the Christian faith fail to address is that this is not a case of a private citizen living out his or her faith as such and being punished therefore. No, this is a case of a private citizen who, while employed as a public official, refused to obey the laws of the United States and the State of Kentucky based on her personal convictions. (Incidentally, she would have most likely taken an oath to support those laws at some point). She appears to mistakenly hold to the beliefs that: (1) as an elected official she is entitled to hold her position as clerk for as long as she desires; and (2) in that position, she is entitled to act upon her private religious beliefs even if in doing so she denies legal rights to other private citizens; and (3) she can do this without legal consequence. She is wrong on all counts.
What is frustrating is that Ms. Davis and many of her supporters appear to have painted the situation with too broad a brush, describing it in such a way that Ms. Davis appeared to only have two options in this case: violate her faith principles and follow the court’s order or vice versa. GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina and others correctly pointed out that there was, all this time, a valid third option for Ms. Davis: resign her post. In doing so, she could have sent a powerful statement that her faith is superior to the laws of man and avoided the debacle this event has become.
Ms. Davis’ job was a privilege bestowed upon her by the people of Rowan County, not an entitlement despite her numerous years of employment in the office. She cannot and should not use this public position as a platform for her private views, any more than a Muslim judge should be entitled to force litigants to appear in court in Muslim attire or face the contempt powers of his court. When Ms. Davis is away from her job, she should be free to campaign and speak freely against same-sex marriage. When Ms. Davis opens her own personal pocketbook, she should be entitled to support conservative Christian causes and groups that are working to fight the Supreme Court’s ruling. Had Ms. Davis been jailed by Judge Bunning for speaking out against same-sex marriage in her home, in her church, or on the public street corner, Sen. Cruz, Gov. Huckabee and others would be correct in their assessment of the situation as one of Christian persecution.
But when Ms. Davis is at work and steps into the role of Clerk of Rowan County, however, she must follow the law or face the consequences. And if Ms. Davis feels her faith prevents her from following the law, the right thing – dare I say the “Christian” thing – to do is to “shake the dust from her feet” and resign her position with dignity and honor.
Others have pointed out Scripture that suggests Christians ought to submit to government authority (such as Mark 12:17 and Romans 13:1-7). Whether a Christian’s duty in such a time is to submit to our government and live as peaceably but undefiled by the world as possible or whether our duty is to stand and fight is a matter for the pulpit and the heart of every believer. It is not my place to tell any Christian what his or her role or duty as a believer is in this case. It is my right as an American to say what happened in Ms. Davis’ case is what should have happened.
A court that is faced with a person who willfully refuses to obey has, in reality, two lawful options available to it to compel obedience: fines or imprisonment. Either way, a person facing the court’s contempt powers is said to hold the “keys to the jail cell” – that is, the person’s compliance with the court’s orders immediately and instantaneously ends the court’s power to hold the person in contempt. If during the night Ms. Davis informed the court she would obey the court’s order, she would be a free woman today. If she had informed the court yesterday before being led out of the courtroom that she was prepared to obey the order, she would be a free woman. Some media outlets are even reporting that the plaintiffs – the same-sex couples who sought to have Ms. Davis held in contempt – are requesting that the judge release Ms. Davis from custody if she promises not to interfere with the issuance of marriage licenses to other same-sex couples by her deputy clerks. Her continued detention is not imposed as “punishment” for being Christian, but rather to coerce her into allowing the law of the land to be carried out.
Ms. Davis was not arrested for living according to her faith, although it is easy to see how it can be construed as such. No, Ms. Davis was arrested because she willfully refused to comply with a court’s order. She was taken into custody for contempt of court, not for LAC (Living as a Christian). For Sen. Cruz to claim she was arrested for “living according to her faith” is not only inaccurate but it is improper and inflammatory rhetoric. She was arrested for disobeying a court’s order: the only role her faith played in this drama is that her faith is what prompted her to believe she must disobey the order. Ms. Davis would and should have suffered the same fate if she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on her Islamic beliefs, her Jewish beliefs, or any other religious group’s belief that does not condone homosexuality.
Sen. Cruz closed his statement by calling upon “every Believer, every Constitutionalist, every lover of liberty” to join with him and stand with Kim Davis. Unfortunately, I cannot do this. Our nation is a nation of law and order – laws that apply to every person from the least of us to the greatest and protect us from abusive, right-depriving action by the government. Anarchy, not freedom, is the sure result if every person were free to disregard those laws we found personally reprehensible because of our personal and private religious beliefs. Can I disobey laws prohibiting murder because my religion may teach that I have a duty to kill others not of my faith and because my faith teaches these people are not true “persons”? As a public servant, should I have the right to refuse to enforce criminal laws against defendants who perpetrate crimes on others because my religious beliefs tell me the “others” victimized by the crimes are suffering God’s punishment? Should those who scream that Ms. Davis’ experience is one of “persecution” also speak out against the prosecution, arrest , and detention of Islamic terrorists who board American aircraft or public transportation intent on inflicting injury to us, the “Great Satan,” in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs? I would expect they would refuse the opportunity to do so.
Laws can and do change, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision will eventually be either upheld enshrined as one of our nation’s great and defining legal cases or it will be discarded in much the same way as Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson. Until such time as it is overruled or rendered null and void, however, it remains the law of the land and subject to enforcement. Activism, including civil disobedience, is one tool that can bring about a change in the law. But civil disobedience can lead to consequences. Americans from all faiths and backgrounds can take comfort in the fact that the same legal principles that led to Ms. Davis’ legal woes yesterday would have protected them had they sought a marriage license but been denied because a Muslim clerk deemed them infidels and unworthy of marriage or an atheist clerk objected to a license from his office bearing his name being associated with a religious observance. Ms. Davis here had a job to do and a law and duty to carry out. She didn’t, and suffered the consequences. The system, in this case, worked.
History may judge Kim Davis as a hero for her stand in defense of her principles in a similar way that Rosa Parks’ defiance of an order to move to the back of the bus was a defining moment in the Civil Rights movement. Or she may continue to be vilified by some members of the public. Personally, I wish Ms. Davis and her family the best and grieve for their pain and hurt during this time even though I know Ms. Davis continues to remain in custody because of her own choice. I denounce those who label her a hypocrite or point out her past mistakes, as if her personal failings have any bearing on whether what happened to her was legal or not. I genuinely believe her when she says her cannot in good conscience support same-sex marriage and that any involvement would be, to her, a sinful, soul-damning act. But as a public servant myself (in my “day job”), I am satisfied – not happy, not exuberant, but just satisfied – that on Thursday our nation remained one that upholds and honors its laws.