It’s almost too obvious to mention, but when it comes to religious liberty in America, we are in the midst of a veritable golden age.
The First Amendment to our Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and damned if we haven’t nailed it in the last many years. The right to live according to the dictates of one’s faith has never been stronger, and there is little indication that this will change in our lifetimes. As ever, we don’t realize how lucky we are.
Whether you are a Christian, a Sikh or a Seventh Day Adventist, you can travel to your place of worship on Sunday (or whenever) totally unmolested by your government or, with rare exceptions, your fellow citizens. Observant Jews can wear kipot and refrain from eating pork, while Muslims can pray five times a day and…refrain from eating pork.
While being a member of the “wrong” religion can get you shunned, maimed or murdered in many other countries of the world, America is truly a land of pluralism—a nation that, at least on paper, protects its most vulnerable citizens just as robustly as its most populous.
Indeed, the inclination toward granting each other religious freedom is so forceful—such a prevailing view—that we are now having a semi-serious debate about whether the right to one’s faith-based opinions actually entitles an individual to break the law and deny the civil rights of other individuals. Yes, even if that particular individual happens to work for the government.
Of course, I am referring to the one-woman crusade currently being waged by a Kentucky county clerk named Kim Davis. As an observant Christian, Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, because doing so would violate her religious beliefs. This in spite of the fact that, since June 26, gay marriage is the law of the land in all 50 states.
In effect, the issue is whether the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause can ever supersede the rule of law. In other words, can the word of God take legal precedence over the word of Congress or the Supreme Court?
As we have seen, this question has precisely one correct answer. By refusing to issue marriage licenses to couples who have every right to obtain one—even after the nation’s highest court explicitly ordered her otherwise—Davis has been held in contempt and carted off to jail. While, as an elected official, she cannot technically be “fired,” it doesn’t look terribly likely that she will remain in this job much longer. And rightly so: Why should Kentucky taxpayers be compelled to pay a clerk for not doing her job?
Much has been made of the disclosure that Davis herself has been married four times and divorced thrice. Personally, I’m still reeling from the fact that, five months after divorcing Husband No. 1, she give birth to twins who were adopted by Husband No. 2 but were, in fact, fathered by Husband No. 3. (Feel free to read that sentence again.)
Of course, all of that is perfectly legal and we should never judge or make assumptions about anyone’s marital history. Relationships are complicated, and marriage is messy even under the most ideal circumstances.
On the other hand, marital infidelity is clearly and definitively condemned in the Bible and, in Deuteronomy, is punishable by death.
Kim Davis has said she performs her official duties in accordance with the Biblical definition of marriage. It begs the question: If she really means that, then why hasn’t she hired someone to kill her?
Happily for everyone, she plainly doesn’t mean it. She is against homosexuality for reasons all her own and, like every Christian, she handpicks the Biblical passages that align with her views and ignores the ones that don’t.
This is not to suggest that her beliefs are not sincerely held. It just means they are not held for the reasons she claims and that she is a massive glittering hypocrite when it comes to enforcing holy writ.
Of course, as an American, she is fully entitled to be the horrible person that she is and to believe whatever the hell she wants. That’s the very definition of religious liberty and no one would dare force her to think differently. If we all agreed about everything, we wouldn’t need a First Amendment in the first place.
However, we are nonetheless a society in which laws reign supreme over religion, and it’s precisely because we have so many different religions that can each be interpreted in a billion different ways. While it might be amusing to imagine a culture in which everyone can ignore any rule they disagree with, the idea of actually doing it doesn’t even pass the laugh test.
Put simply: To say the First Amendment includes the right to deny someone else a marriage license makes no more sense than saying the Second Amendment includes the right to commit murder.
Certainly, there are countries in which “the authority of God” (as Davis called it) has final say over who gets to live or die, let alone who can get married or not. Of course, these countries tend to be predominantly Muslim and their system, known as “sharia,” is universally condemned—particularly by American conservatives—as medieval and antithetical to everything that Americans hold sacred.
How curious, then, that many of these same conservatives (read: half the GOP presidential candidates) are now defending this very same principle when the God in question is a Christian one. How peculiar that defying settled law through Islam is repulsive, but doing the same through Christianity is just fine. I’m sure there’s a non-racist, non-homophobic explanation for this somewhere. As an atheist, I regret I’m not the best person to find it.
In any case, I didn’t come here to talk about Kim Davis, as such. Really, I would just like to take a moment to underline how unbelievably lucky the gay community has been lately with respect to its would-be antagonists.
It would have been one thing if the self-appointed poster child for upholding “traditional marriage” were someone who actually engaged in the practice herself. Someone who could credibly claim to be holier than thou.
That this particular mascot for following “God’s will” happens to be a raging phony is not merely hilarious; it also demonstrates just how phony her entire argument is.
To be clear: Davis’ personal morality has absolutely no bearing on the legal arguments vis-à-vis her behavior as the Rowan County clerk. Her actions would be contemptuous and absurd regardless of how many husbands she has had.
That, in so many words, is the point: The law does not care about morality. The law exists whether you agree with it or not, and applies to all citizens equally. Further, if you happen to be a public official whose one and only job is to carry out the law, then your opinion of the law does not matter. Either you do your job or you resign.
But of course, this doesn’t negate the role that ethics play in our day-to-day lives, and this is where Davis has become the gay rights movement’s new best friend.
Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states—and will almost certainly remain that way forever—there is nothing left to concern ourselves with except for the proverbial “changing hearts and minds.”
And where persuading people of gays’ inherent humanity is concerned, what finer image could there be than a thrice-divorced heterosexual turning her back on a homosexual couple attempting to get married just once? In what possible universe does the person who has cheated her way through three marriages assume the moral high ground over couples who are embracing this sacred institution afresh? What possible threat do those couples pose to society or morality, other than the possibility that, in time, they may turn into people like Kim Davis?