No, Kim Davis, your beliefs don’t outweigh America’s rule of law

September 8, 2015
Jeffrey Shook preached to the crowd outside the federal Courthouse in Ashland during Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis' contempt of court hearing. Photo by Charles Bertram.

Jeffrey Shook preached to the crowd outside the federal Courthouse in Ashland during Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’ contempt of court hearing. Photo by Charles Bertram.

 

U.S. District Judge David Bunning did the right thing by sending Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis to jail until she agrees to either obey the law and allow her office to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples or she resigns.

Bunning had no choice. His job is to enforce federal law and court orders, and Davis refused to obey. “In this country, we live in a society of laws,” he told her.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Davis’ beliefs, or those of her colleagues in Whitley and Casey counties. Their interpretation of Christianity considers homosexuality a sin and gay marriage wrong. They have every right to believe that.

But this dilemma should be their problem, not ours. This battle should be playing out in their consciences, not among lawyers and judges, couples seeking marriage licenses and self-serving politicians.

“Jailed. For her beliefs,” tweeted Whitney Westerfield, a state senator from Hopkinsville who is the Republican nominee for attorney general.

No, Senator. Davis was jailed for refusing a federal judge’s order to obey the law. Someone seeking to become state attorney general should know better.

If these clerks, or other government officials or employees, cannot in good conscience obey the law and fulfill the duties of their public-service jobs, they should resign. They owe it to the taxpayers they serve, including the Rowan County couples suing Davis for refusing to issue them marriage licenses.

Davis’ case has attracted national attention in part because she isn’t a very sympathetic figure, even among many Christians. She wants to pick and choose, take parts of the Bible seriously and literally, and ignore other parts.

There is no evidence that Davis, an Apostolic Christian who has been divorced three times, has denied marriage licenses to divorced people and adulterers. The Bible has a lot more to say about them than it does about homosexuals.

A couple of generations ago, divorce was considered a socially unacceptable sin. If divorced people are given a pass now by fundamentalist Christians, why are gay people singled out for righteous discrimination?

If Davis can’t do her job in good conscience, why doesn’t she just resign? Maybe, like so many politicos, she feels entitled to her $80,000-a-year job. Her mother was the Rowan County clerk for nearly four decades. Davis now has her son on the payroll.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but for activists who want laws and the government to reflect their religious beliefs, that isn’t good enough.

They seek “religious freedom” laws such as the one the General Assembly passed in 2013 over Gov. Steve Beshear’s wise veto. The main goal of these laws is to make it easier to discriminate against gay people.

Several Republican candidates have urged Beshear to call a special session of the General Assembly — which typically costs taxpayers about $60,000 a day — to find ways to accommodate the clerks’ religious objections.

But accommodation is a slippery slope. What if a clerk started denying marriage licenses to previously divorced people or accused adulterers? What if a Muslim clerk wouldn’t issue drivers’ licenses to women?

Could Baptist officials refuse to issue state liquor licenses? What if surface-mining permits were blocked by government employees who believed the destruction of God’s creation is immoral? Where does it end?

Kentucky officials have wasted tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on losing legal battles to post the Ten Commandments on public property. Would they be just as agreeable to displaying verses from the Quran? Statues of Hindu gods? An atheist’s monument proclaiming there is no god?

I respect everyone’s right to their beliefs. But I do not respect people who try to force their beliefs on others, especially when they are acting with the power of government in an increasingly diverse, multicultural society.

If there is one thing world history can teach us, it is that mixing church and state causes nothing but trouble. The sooner Kentuckians learn that lesson, the better.

 

 

 


History will remember this month of seismic social change

June 27, 2015
A Pride flag held by Michael Harrington of Berea is backlit by the sun during the Decision Day Rally, celebrating Friday's marriage equality ruling, at Robert Stephens Courthouse Plaza in Lexington. Photo by Matt Goins

Michael Harrington of Berea holds a pride flag during the Decision Day Rally, celebrating Friday’s marriage equality ruling, at Courthouse Plaza in Lexington. Photo by Matt Goins

 

Social progress can seem painfully slow. And then, almost out of nowhere, events bring public opinion and the law together to produce head-spinning change.

This month will go down in history as one of those epic tipping points on several issues that have simmered below the surface of American society for generations.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Friday that same-sex couples in all 50 states have a constitutional right to marry. It was a landmark decision against discrimination that followed a seismic shift in public opinion toward gay rights.

Just a few years ago, gay marriage would have seemed unthinkable to most Americans. It was contrary to tradition and conservative religious beliefs, which were reflected in federal and state law.

But when the legal question finally reached the nation’s highest court, there was little doubt about the outcome. The legal arguments against same-sex marriage were almost laughably lame.

Equal protection under the law is one of this nation’s most cherished values. The Supreme Court majority correctly decided that gay people should not have their freedom to marry blocked by other people’s religious beliefs.

It was public opinion, not a court ruling, that swiftly turned the tide on another issue: state-sponsored veneration of the Confederacy, which has disrespected black people and fueled racial tensions since the Civil War.

Protests Tuesday at the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia. Associated Press photo.

Protests Tuesday at the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia. Associated Press photo.

Conservative politicians across the South were tripping over each other last week to call for removing Confederate flags from their state capitols, Confederate emblems from their state flag and license plates and statues of Confederate heroes from places of honor.

It was a stunning reversal. Many of these politicians, and others like them, had resisted this for years. Their predecessors helped erect these symbols, either to memorialize a mythical “Lost Cause” or to express defiance against federal civil rights legislation and court-ordered integration.

Then, suddenly, a heinous crime exposed these excuses and rationalizations for what they really were. A 21-year-old white man murdered nine black worshipers in a Charleston, S.C., church after touting his racism online with pictures of himself holding the Confederate flag.

Many white people defend Confederate symbols as expressions of “Southern heritage.” They view them as honoring the sacrifices of ancestors, most of whom did not own slaves and were fighting out of loyalty to their home states.

But these symbols have always had a different meaning for black people. Confederate leaders considered their ancestors to be less-than-human property, and they went to war to try to keep them enslaved.

Since the Civil War, white supremacists have often used Confederate imagery as a tool for trying to keep black people “in their place.” Celebrating the Confederacy for other reasons does not change that bitter fact.

That doesn’t mean every Confederate relic should be banished to a museum. But government, which serves all people in this increasingly diverse country, should be careful about how and where the Confederate legacy is enshrined.

Should Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ statue be moved from the state Capitol rotunda to a museum? Should statues of Lexington’s most prominent Confederate leaders, John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan, be removed from the old courthouse lawn and Cheapside?

A monument honoring the hundreds of slaves sold on the auction block at Cheapside or whipped on that courthouse lawn now seems more appropriate.

How do we preserve, acknowledge and learn from our complex history, while at the same time honoring values we want to shape our future? It is a delicate balance.

Pope Francis. Photo by Andrew Medichini / Associated Press.

Pope Francis. Photo by Andrew Medichini / Associated Press.

The last major tipping point this month has received less attention, but it was a watershed nonetheless.

Pope Francis issued a strongly worded encyclical to the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics that clearly framed environmental stewardship, climate change and related topics of social justice and economic inequality as moral issues.

But the leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination will have a fight on his hands. His views are well-grounded in Christian theology, but they run counter to the way the world works.

Many powerful people worship a God found in bank vaults rather than Heaven. By shifting the moral conversation from sex to money, Pope Francis has made a lot of people nervous. It will be interesting to see what difference his leadership makes.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”