The right has mouthed a lot of platitudes lately about “religious liberty.” This is their tack in the wake of nationwide same-sex marriage. The individual, they say, can’t be forced to violate his or her own conscience, regardless of the law. That sounds harmless in the abstract, but if you consider what it actually means in concrete terms, the argument falls to pieces.
Consider the latest martyr in the anti-LGBT movement, Kim Davis. A clerk in Rowan County, KY, Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses since the Supreme Court’s decision on June 26 to legalize same-sex marriages. She’s cleverly denied granting any licenses in order to avoid legally discriminating against gay people in particular (which, of course, is precisely what she’s doing).
Davis’s actions illustrate the reality of invoking religious liberty as a justification for illegal or discriminatory behavior. Davis is a public servant in a secular republic – that means something. Davis and her supporters are under the impression (read: delusion) that America is a Christian nation; this has become part of the mythos of the religious right in this country. It is, however, untrue. God or no God, this is a nation of laws, man-made laws. As the courts have stated repeatedly, private citizens and public officials are obliged to obey laws that the government has a secular interest in enforcing – regardless of personal religious convictions.
Davis and the extremists on the right refuse to acknowledge this, but that doesn’t matter – it’s still the law. Davis released a statement released yesterday in which she wrote: “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. For me it is a decision of obedience.”
Davis appears to believe that only the laws she (and her God) approves of are compulsory – that’s not how rule of law works, however. Her “conscience” is irrelevant because she’s a public official with legal responsibilities that trump her personal beliefs. If she doesn’t want to do her job, the solution is simple: resign. No one has compelled her to serve as county clerk, after all. This isn’t a theocracy and her views on “Heaven and Hell” are immaterial. This is a legal or not legal decision, and she’s clearly breaking the law.
In defense of Davis, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) issued an additional statement, which highlights the confusion at the heart of her position: “Her name is Kim Davis. She’s a public servant…And a Christian. She is now the face of the marriage movement, the latest victim of gay intolerance and government discrimination and persecution of marriage supporters.” First, the notion of “gay intolerance” is preposterous. Granting marriage licenses to gay people in no way impedes the efforts of straight people to be straight -- or religious, in Davis’s case. This is about equal treatment under the law. Besides, even if Davis is unwilling to issue the license, she could allow someone else in her office to do it, thereby absolving her of personal responsibility. But she refuses to do that. So you tell me, who’s being intolerant here?
Slippery slope arguments are almost always sloppy, but not in this case. Once you permit religious objections of this kind, where do you draw the line? What constitutes a genuine religious belief? Who can make such a determination? And how do you apply religious exemptions in a secular and pluralistic context? There are no definitive (or acceptable) answers to these questions, which is why church and state are separate in this country.
Legal questions aside, there’s another troubling (but familiar) aspect to this story. Like so many fundamentalists, Davis is a hypocrite; she fails to live by the light of her own standards, the very standards she lords over others. Normally, I’d resist the urge to attack a private citizen personally, but exceptions must be made for moralizers. As it turns out, Davis’s own life is shot through with sin. Among other things, she’s been married four times and conceived a child (two children, in fact) out of wedlock. A woman who takes her Bible a la carte has no business pounding it in the faces of others. Period.
Finally, the defenders of “religious liberty” are never entirely honest about what they mean. They only really care about the liberty of Christians, not religious people as such. What would they say if a Muslim county clerk refused to marry a Muslim to a non-Muslim? What would they say if that clerk consented to polygamous marriages in accordance with Sharia law? My guess is they’d sound the alarm bells and hysterically protest the theocratic encroachment.
And they’d be right, as is everyone taking a stand against Davis’s religious bigotry.