A cheer for Kim Davis

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Rowan County Courthouse, Morehead, Ky

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Rowan County Courthouse, Morehead, Ky

Rowan County Courthouse, Morehead, Ky

Rowan County Courthouse, Morehead, Ky.

I don’t doubt that Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis believes she will go to hell if she issues a marriage license to a same-sex couple. And I’m happy to live in a country that guarantees her right to believe that. Who knows, she may even be right.

But I rise to cheer not the steadfastness of her faith but the usefulness of the object lesson she has provided the country on the limits of free exercise in this country. In recent years, social conservatives have portrayed religious liberty as a kind of constitutional absolute, as if it trumped all other rights and responsibilities.

As the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty put it in 2012, it is “our most cherished freedom. It is the first freedom because if we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, all other freedoms are fragile.” Call this spiritual libertarianism.

To be sure, the spiritual libertarians do not claim that free exercise gives a conscientious cannibal the right to eat people. But they have advanced the position that religious conviction permits anyone to refuse to do anything required by law, with the possible exception of paying their taxes.

No doubt, Christians have long been faced with a dilemma regarding obedience to civil law. On the one hand, there is Jesus’ oblique response to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” and Paul’s more specific:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

On the other hand, the Early Church valorized its martyrs for defying Roman authority and Protestant theologians found ways to work around the Pauline prescription. Kim Davis is at once a governing authority and a person rebelling against governing authority.

For government employees in America — be they county clerks, public school teachers, or members of the military — religious liberty is conditioned by functioning in a governmental capacity. The longstanding American answer to any conscientious objection they may have was stated straightforwardly by Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, in his famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Association 55 years ago this month:

But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise.

More recently, Justice Antonin Scalia took a similar position regarding a judge unable to uphold a law he or she conscientiously opposes.

[I]n my view the choice for the judge who believes the death penalty to be immoral is resignation, rather than simply ignoring duly enacted, constitutional laws and sabotaging death penalty cases. He has, after all, taken an oath to apply the laws and has been given no power to supplant them with rules of his own.

Kim Davis has her supporters, of course, including GOP presidential aspirants Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal. But most of the leading advocates of religious liberty are not rushing to her defense. They recognize that spiritual libertarianism is rhetorically useful only up to a point.

  • George Nixon Shuler

    Actually, boldness and putting your life on the line, even in an incredibly stupid and futile gesture as Kim Davis has, is indeed an admirable trait, and I salute her for that. Of course, knowing she will be rolling in greenbacks when the advance for her ghostwritten book comes in, it seems a very shrewd risk she has taken. Plus, there’s always the speaking engagements at the various right-wing confabs where she can demand all the green M&Ms in her suite be removed like a rock star, should she choose to do that.

    But what she’s done is not is not an exercise of religion. A Jew can register to vote. A Muslim can pay property tax. A pagan can be put in the jury duty pool. An atheist can apply for a business license. She has violated the public trust and disgraced her office, as anyone with a brain knows.

  • mike watson

    Kim Davis’ religious conversion reminds me of the character “Delmar” in the film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” (played by Tim Blake Nelson) who after robbing banks and “fornicating with whores” experiences a religious epiphany after a baptism in a river and being born again. The similarities are eerily the same and the fact that “Delmar” soon resumes his sinful ways only shows the transient nature of said conversions.

  • I just don’t understand how Kim Davis can use her elected position as County Clerk, a position funded by taxpayers, to deny services to couples who are legally eligible to marry. She is free to practice her own religion on her own time, but how can she impose her beliefs on other people on the taxpayers’ dime?

    If a pharmacist at my local Rite Aid refused to fill a prescription for birth control pills because he’s a Catholic, wouldn’t Rite Aid be within their rights to fire him?

  • Yes her stance is stupid, but it is also sanctimonious and above all, selfish.

  • Ed

    Davis sure looks like she should do a lot more “free exercise”. On a treadmill.

    The bible also says she should have been stoned for her divorces…

    She’s the bottom of the human barrel. Unfortunate indicator is that she’s getting more than her deserved femtosecond of fame.

  • Mark

    So the religious set approves of workers accepting money for not doing their jobs? I thank god I’m an atheist.

  • ellah harris

    Not many object to the state of Colorado defying Federal laws on marijuana. Most are simply looking the other way. I wonder why?

  • Dave Pittman

    To those who support this woman idea of religious liberty will offer the same support when a Muslim judge feels that God wants him to disregard the laws of the land and impose Sharia law instead. Lets say the judge was a moderate when elected but has since converted to fundamentalist sect of Islam and sincerely believes that it would be immoral to not apply Sharia and asserts that he is acting under the authority of God. Well, would you defend the Muslim judge? If not please explain the difference.

  • AntiTheist

    I see a fundraising campaign for her, just like for a pizza shop who “never” catered pizza at gay weddings but said they wouldn’t and the cake shop that refused making a cake for gay wedding. Both got hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. This one is likely to top it – she’ll make a few million dollars as the case is more visible, book deal, reality show on Discovery Channel or TLC and maybe ends up with a show on Max TV or America One channel. Breaking laws of this country and violating civil rights apparently pays when you are a Christian. I can only imagine if an atheist would deny Christians rights to marry telling them they cannot be married because he holds a deep belief they need to follow the Bible and be stoned for divorce, infidelity and interracial marriage though he doesn’t believe in their god. This would be an epic case! “As an atheist, I believe, you need to follow your god’s commandments – NO MARRIAGE LICENSE FOR YOU – you lusted after your wife before…

  • AntiTheist

    I wonder if Christians would support financially through an online campaign an atheist who will deny marriage licences to Christians or everyone like Kim David is pointing out that they need to “sell all their possessions” otherwise they cannot be Jesus’ follower? You see even atheists can cherry pick the Bible.

    Maybe an atheist business owner can cite “Hobby Lobby” case to deny health insurance to all Christians who do not accept evolution and tell them “pray over your cancer and annoint yourself in oil?” – this should do it?

  • Brian

    This article reads as unfinished, I’m with you through most of it but then you just stop, as if mid-sentence. There are no concluding thoughts. No comment on how, given your historical examples, Ms. Davis should have resigned her position if she felt her religious convictions prevented her from doing her job. You can applaud her for sticking to her beliefs all you want, but the simple fact of the matter is that the law of this land applies equally to everyone living here and it is very clear that she must uphold her oath to office and perform the duties she has been delegated including issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. What she is doing is indefensible, which is why she will not be the martyr she hopes to become.

  • Daniel

    Staying on in a position for which you are refusing to perform the duties you were hired to perform, all while continuing to take a salary, is far from a “Christian” thing to do. It doesn’t matter is you were hired or elected, you agreed to take a position and perform the duties of that position. If, through a change in your own conscience or a change in the laws of the country, you find yourself unable, in good conscience, to perform the duties your job entails, you DON’T keep taking money while refusing to work. You step down.

  • AntiTheist

    “Thou shall not steal” – she is currently stealing from the state for the services she’s refusing to be performing. Look forward to hearing about the judge’s decision. She needs to be put in jail for contempt of court, hopefully, not fined, otherwise, she’ll resign her post soon and become a millionaire through donations of those who’ll call for fundraising to pay her fine.
    — a Bible Reading Atheist

  • Dominic

    She is a simple woman trying her best to defend a moral position on marriage. Gay marriage is such a uniquely novel creation in history that it should offend even more people. It is a bogus addition to the marriage definition that would have been laughed at a mere ten years ago.
    Move the poor woman to another position at the County Office and stop calling her the persecutor for defending the marriage norm. Let America open up the floodgates for decadence and outlaw all of the beliefs that made us great. You rock, Obama!

  • Larry

    Because there is neither harm to the general public nor issues of discrimination involved. Plus federal law does not control how states can treat their own drug laws. There is no nose at the end of that swinging fist.

  • AntiTheist


  • Tom

    The government has not compelled Ms. Davis to serve as a Kentucky County clerk and has not, therefore, impinged on her religious (or any other) liberty.

    Having chosen to serve in that position she is obligated (under oath I presume) to discharge her duties according to the law – not according to her conscience. If the discharge of the legal requirements obligations of the public office entrusted to here entails violating her religious beliefs, she is entirely free to resign.

    The notion that this case has anything to do with religious liberty is patently absurd.

  • OKay

    Yea, but Brother where art thou is a movie. Hence, not reality. Yea…

  • Larry

    The actions of the people in the movie make more sense and are entertaining. Real life, in this situation, is insane and pathetic to watch.

  • TR

    I would suggest everyone reading this article or watching this situation take place go back and study American history…and the defiance of both citizens and elected officials toward what they considered unjust and immoral laws. The Fugitive Slave Act of the early 19th century mandated that everyone…citizens AND elected officials….help slave owners recover their “property” in the form of runaway slaves…..everyone was required to do what they could to assist the slaveowner and do nothing to hinder that activity…..that was a law passed by Congress and upheld by the US Supreme Court as the “law of the land” at that time. Yet courageous citizens and elected officials stood against that law and openly defied it…..some were jailed, some lost property, many received huge fines….all because they openly defied what they believed to be an immoral and unjust law….standing for one’s beliefs, whether a private citizen or official, is truly an American tradition.

  • Larry

    Thank you for insulting the memories of abolitionists in order to defend discriminatory conduct. Why don’t you find an example more on point here.

    This is the modern equivalent of George Wallace barring black students from registering at U of Alabama. Proclaiming the joys of segregation.

    A public elected official defying Court orders which ban discrimination against a given group. Someone abusing their position to deny legal access to services they are entitled to due to their personal bigotry. Calling it religious faith doesn’t change the immoral and reprehensible nature of it.

    This is not an act of conscience, it is malice with a religious excuse. No different than if she refused to grant licenses to interracial couples because her Christian Identity faith forbade the mixing of races. You are defending a self-perceived right to persecute others. There is nothing moral nor worthy of respect in that.

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  • Jim

    I was a Conscious Objector during the Vietnam war and found myself in a U.S. prison. While some have considered me a traitor, fortunately many now see the war not as one defending this country but an act of terrible aggression in the murder of millions of local natives that were not a threat to us and left us with many wounded and conflicted veterans..

    I support anyone that will take a stand, whether they agree with me or not but to do so in such a way that their integrity is upheld. Maybe it’s prison for Ms. Davis but I suspect more respect will be gained if she resigns from her job and refuse any salary and benefits during her incarceration.

  • Jim

    Just for clarity – other religions and cultures have been “gay” but Yes western religions typically are not gay supporting. Even the idea its against nature is not true in the animal or bacteria kingdoms. Fortunately I do not practice knowing what God wants now but I sense the universe is not a stagnate creation and to judge something in transition may lead to lots of false condemning, something Christ warned us about. Don’t you just love the Lord’s prayer!

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