Religious liberty is at the core of the Kim Davis saga, just not the way most people think.
As I watch the news and hear countless pundits and politicians cite concerns over religious liberty, I can’t help but think – many people’s definition of religious liberty is way off base. Additionally, many Baptists seemingly have little knowledge of religious liberty as Baptists have historically understood it.
Say the words, “religious liberty is at stake!” and people come out of the woodwork claiming nation-wide religious persecution. Many Christians feel Kim Davis is a martyr in the struggle for religious liberty concerning gay marriage.
On the surface, I agree that religious liberty is at stake. Indeed, it is THE core issue at play, however, opinions diverge from there.
If Davis’s decision and actions were allowed to stand, then based on precedent, government officials could refuse any licenses or services to any citizen based on “religious convictions.” A veritable Pandora’s Box would open.
- What if the clerk was Anabaptist or Quaker and refused to issue gun or concealed carry licenses?
- What if the clerk was Anglican and decided on religious grounds to not give marriage licenses to Protestant ministers? (Which happened regularly in Virginia before the Bill of Rights)
- What if a health department official was Muslim, and refused to grant licenses or health permits to establishments that sell pork products?
- What if a clerk refused to assemble a jury for a trial because she disagreed with the law the defendant had violated?
- What if a clerk, based on religious convictions, decided to throw out all African American ballots after an election? (Circa 1950’s)
- Or what if a clerk, on religious grounds, refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple? (Like what happened in Virginia in the 1970’s)
EACH of these would be (or has proven) a losing legal battle, and a threat to the religious liberty of us all. It’s not Davis’s job to interpret the law, or decide which law to apply and which to ignore. Law enforcement officials and IRS employees have known this for decades.
Davis and her supporters may play martyr/victim for the sake of “religious liberty,” but their understanding of religious liberty as it’s actually in play, and as it’s actually at stake, are completely backwards.
The liberty of all citizens requires the government treat all people equally under the law. As a government employee (elected or not), a major part of Davis’s responsibility is to serve all county residents in accordance with the laws of her state and our country.
She can have any private opinion she wants about gay marriage, but as a representative of the state she cannot impose that view on others without violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment. As a government employee, Davis is free to exercise her religion, but not when it interferes with the liberty of others under the law of the land.
Davis may indeed qualify for a religious exemption under Kentuky’s RFRA law, but she has refused every exemption extended to her by the court. As of yesterday, Davis is out of jail and has been ordered to not interfere with her deputy clerks in fulfilling their oaths of office. It remains to be seen if she’ll comply.
Say what you want about the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling – it happened. Whether one voices objection or praise for the ruling, it is the law of the land.
The same has always been true for Supreme Court rulings. Consider Brown v. Board of Education (school integration) or even Roe v. Wade (abortion). They are law. Period.
One option for Davis, who no doubt fights an uphill legal battle, is to consider other employment. The government’s compelling interest in her case (based on Obergefell v. Hodges) seems to far outweigh Davis’s conscientious objection to serving marriage licenses to gay couples. Religious liberty exemptions are usually made if it can be proven there is no compelling government objection (like allowing a Native American tribe to ingest peyote in a religious ceremony).
In the 2nd century, Tertullian was a strong proponent of Christians resisting Roman culture. He suggested that because polytheism and idolatry were so embedded in Roman culture, many cultural activities and occupations could place the Christian in “constant danger of compromising [their] loyalty to the Lord.”
Tertullian encouraged Christians to withdraw from certain occupations because of this, even writing that Christians should resist impressment in the Roman military because, ancient military life involved participation in pagan religious ceremonies, swearing an oath to Caesar, and violating the law of Christ’s love.
As a Baptist who values historic Baptist principles, I always want to fight for free expression of religion, but I equally want to protect the rights of others to their own conscience. That’s what soul competency is all about.
Military chaplains have known this for centuries. They exist to provide care and support for people in their own tradition (i.e., Protestant, Catholic, Islam, and Judaism) but must facilitate the free expression of worship for those outside their tradition. This means that a Christian chaplain does not have to lead an Islamic worship service, but they must help ensure that adherents to Islam are able to practice their religion freely. One of the key functions of military chaplains is ensuring First Amendment free exercise of religion for all military personnel, no matter their values and no matter their faith.
In the world of military chaplaincy, part of ensuring religious liberty for all involves not forcing one’s faith on others. County clerks should operate with the same understanding, or in my opinion, explore a career change. If Kim Davis valued religious liberty, she would either do her job, or find another one.