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The ‘Splainer: Kim Davis, Pope Francis and the fight over conscientious objection

(RNS) Kim Davis objected. But does the pope agree with her conscience?

The ‘Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional online feature in which RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at a cocktail party.

RNS-SPLAINER-LOGObthumb(RNS) Pope Francis, winging his way back to Rome last week, spoke forcefully in defense of conscientious objectors. Then news broke that during the Washington, D.C., leg of his U.S. visit, he had secretly met with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

The private encounter has added a culture war coda to the papal visit and reopened discussions about religious freedom. But what’s a conscientious objector anyway? Let us ‘Splain …

Q: It sounds rebellious yet noble — “conscientious objector.” How can I be one?

A: First, you have to break a law. Then you have to say you did it because your conscience wouldn’t allow you to abide by it. Kim Davis said she won’t issue marriage licenses to gay couples because of her Christian beliefs. For her defiance, a judge sent her to jail for five days last month.

Historically though, a conscientious objector is a person drafted to go to war who refuses because of a moral opposition to either violence in general or a particular conflict. In colonial times, pacifist groups such as the Quakers were exempt from military service. In every American war, conscientious objectors — known as COs — have refused to fight.

Q: So it’s an anti-military thing? I don’t think Kim Davis has a problem with the military.

A: The broader definition of a conscientious objector includes anyone who risks punishment for defying a law on principle. Think Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Q: Some people despise comparisons between Davis and those icons of civil disobedience.

A: Supporters made Davis the poster woman for conscientious objection to the June Supreme Court decision declaring marriage a constitutional right for gay couples. To them, she is an ordinary person who did the extraordinary by standing her moral ground and paying with her liberty.

But many say Davis is no conscientious objector and that she is not practicing civil disobedience.

As columnist David Gushee wrote: “Government officials who fail to enforce the law are not practicing civil disobedience, but instead simply violating the rule of law and their sworn obligation to enforce it. Because they are not conscripts, they have an obvious alternative to enforcing a law they do not like — they can resign.”

Q: Muhammad Ali — conscientious objector?

A: In 1967, the former heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali, a Muslim, cited religious reasons for refusing to be inducted into the military. His local draft board, however, denied him conscientious objector status and boxing authorities stripped him of his heavyweight title. The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned his draft evasion eviction.

Q: Are all conscientious objectors religious folks?

A: Those who call themselves conscientious objectors are frequently driven by religious convictions, but not always. Though some young Americans refused to fight in the Vietnam War based on their faith, many others simply stated that they considered the war ethically indefensible.

Q: The pope called for respect for the “basic human right” of conscientious objectors. Do they have rights or do they always wind up behind bars?

A: In some ways, American law — and many foreign legal systems — accommodate conscientious objectors. In the U.S., conscientious objectors can register with the U.S. military, and then serve in jobs where they will not be required to take up arms. Another example: most states allow pharmacists who don’t want to fill prescriptions for the so-called morning-after pill to ask another pharmacist dispense the drug.

Q: It seems as if one person’s conscientious objector is another’s arrogant scofflaw.

Supporters of conscientious objectors usually sympathize with their point of view and respect their willingness to risk punishment for the sake of principle. Critics typically think conscientious objectors place themselves above the law for the sake of a bad cause.

But some people don’t like the idea of conscientious objection in general, arguing that in a democracy, people need to follow laws. Then again, who would fault Rosa Parks for her conscientious objection to the law that required her sit in the back of the bus because she was black?

Q: Does the pope hold up Davis as a conscientious objector?

A: She and her camp strongly imply that he did. Davis’ lawyer said the Vatican requested the meeting, and Davis herself said the pope told her to “stay strong.” Davis said their meeting “kind of validates everything” she has been doing.

But on Friday (Oct. 2) the Vatican distanced itself from Davis, saying the pope’s encounter with her “should not be considered a form of support of her position.” The statement described Davis as one of dozens of people the pope had met at the Vatican Embassy on Sept. 24. And CNN reported Friday that the day before Francis met Davis, he met with a gay couple.