We’ve all read or heard ad nauseum about Kim Davis, the head clerk of court in Rowan County, Kentucky, who spent a few days in jail for contempt after refusing a judge’s order to comply with the law of the land and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Fundamentalist Christians have made her out to be a heroic martyr, while Republican politicians like Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz have sought to gain points in the polls by getting face time with her.
Two things are very wrong with the way Davis is playing out the unsightly scenario: first, the claim that her religious freedom is being violated; and second, that her religious conscience gives her authority to flout the law.
I’m a big fan of religious freedom, but there is no violation of religious freedom here. Davis is free to believe as she wants and to oppose same-sex marriage if she wants. She can picket her own courthouse, but when on the job she cannot defy a law because she doesn’t like it. What she and her supporters want is not religious freedom but religious domination, a system that allows personal beliefs to trump national laws.
What if a clerk in the next county held a firm belief, based on his or her cultural upbringing and misinterpretation of the Bible, that inter-racial marriage was wrong, and refused to issue marriage licenses to couples whose skin was a different color? Would that be acceptable? No. Would it be an exercise of religious freedom? No. Davis’s claim that doing her job in accordance with the law violates her religious freedom is empty rhetoric, and those who try to make political hay out of her vacuous claims reveal their own failure to understand the principle.
Religious liberty involves a clear separation of church and state: Davis and her supporters want their brand of religion to supersede the state. They forget that we live in a pluralistic nation whose founders understood that secular law and religious beliefs are two different things.
If Davis really wants to make a statement about her beliefs, she should resign from the job she is unwilling to perform in accordance with the law. Apparently, however, she holds her $80,000 salary and the nepotistic system that lets her hire her own son in higher regard than her conscience. If Davis wants to make a statement, and if her personal beliefs won’t allow her to do the job she was elected to do, the only appropriate response is to resign.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.