I have been watching with a kind of fascinated incredulousness the situation in Rowan County Kentucky wherein the Court Clerk refuses to issue marriage licenses in protest of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding gay marriage. The same thing is happening in several counties in Alabama where they had simply decided not to issue any marriage licenses in the hope that this will forestall the eventuality of issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.
Unfortunately for Kim Davis, the Court Clerk in Rowan County Kentucky, there have been lawsuits filed to force her to issue such licenses. Mrs. Davis, who has been married four times herself, has taken it upon herself to fight this issue in court rather than follow the ruling. Mrs. Davis issued the following statement through her lawyers:
I have worked in the Rowan County Clerk’s office for 27 years as a Deputy Clerk and was honored to be elected as the Clerk in November 2014, and took office in January 2015. I love my job and the people of Rowan County. I have never lived any place other than Rowan County. Some people have said I should resign, but I have done my job well. This year we are on track to generate a surplus for the county of 1.5 million dollars.
In addition to my desire to serve the people of Rowan County, I owe my life to Jesus Christ who loves me and gave His life for me. Following the death of my godly mother-in-law over four years ago, I went to church to fulfill her dying wish. There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God.
I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word. It is a matter of religious liberty, which is protected under the First Amendment, the Kentucky Constitution, and in the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our history is filled with accommodations for people’s religious freedom and conscience. I want to continue to perform my duties, but I also am requesting what our Founders envisioned – that conscience and religious freedom would be protected. That is all I am asking. I never sought to be in this position, and I would much rather not have been placed in this position. I have received death threats from people who do not know me. I harbor nothing against them. I was elected by the people to serve as the County Clerk. I intend to continue to serve the people of Rowan County, but I cannot violate my conscience.
Mrs. Davis obviously has deep convictions on the subject of gay marriage and strongly believes that her religion requires her not to participate in sanctioning such a marriage. Personally, I have no problem with her conviction and feel that she has every right not to participate in something that she feels would signify her disobedience to her chosen god. However, if she no longer feels that she can carry out the duties of her position as a servant of the county she should simply resign from her office. She is perfectly free to do so. What she has no right to do is project her own personal religious beliefs into her position as a servant of the people of Rowan County in contravention of established law. Make no mistake about it, it is now established law that she must issue such licenses if the people of Rowan County ask her to do so in spite of her personal religious beliefs. An appeals court has so ruled and the Supreme Court of the United States has also so ruled.
Mrs. Davis seems terribly confused about one thing though, the idea of religious liberty. Religious is defined as relating to or believing in a religion. Religion is defined as the service of or worship of God or the supernatural. It is further defined as a personal or institutionalized set of attitudes, beliefs, or practices. In this particular instance this last definition seems to most accurately describe Mrs. Davis’ idea about her religious duty when she describes her belief that the First Amendment, the Kentucky Constitution, and/or the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows her to choose to follow God’s word instead of the laws of the government she is currently in the employ of. She further goes on to state that our founders wanted conscience and religious freedom to be protected.
Perhaps there is good reason for her confusion as the term Religious Liberty is something of an oxymoron to begin with. Liberty is defined as the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views. Organized religion is an institutionalized set of attitudes, beliefs or practices. Therefore, Religious Liberty is by definition a combination of two words that are antithetical to each other in meaning. It is quite literally impossible to be free from restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life or behavior while following an institutionalized set of attitudes, beliefs, or practices.
Mrs. Davis ironically misses the truth that she is in fact by definition denying other people’s liberty by her misunderstanding of the terms she used in her statement. Her actions are themselves the very definition of oppressive restrictions imposed on one’s way of life. Her decision to violate law and refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay people because her narrow ideas of what serving her god demand is logical proof that she neither understands the definition of liberty nor deserves the cover of hiding behind it.
Liberty is also defined as the power or scope to act as one pleases. Obviously, the liberty to act as one pleases extends only so far as the point where these actions interfere with someone else’s liberty. Neither the First Amendment nor any of the rights called out in the Bill of Rights are correctly construed so as to restrict the rights of other people. In other words, they are personal rights aimed at allowing and expanding personal freedom. They were never intended to be used as weapons or shields behind which one could hide in order to restrict or inhibit the rights of other people.
While Mrs. Davis position is untenable in the extreme, we seem to suddenly be besieged by religious based groups demanding that it is a religious liberty for them to be able to deny rights to people whose lifestyle they find offensive. Any suggestion that liberty contains within it such a right is a blatantly obvious proof that someone doesn’t understand the term to begin with.
In April of 1864 Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to the Maryland Sanitary Fair in Baltimore, Maryland. The following passage of that speech accurately describes this same confusion on a subject around which a similar argument about liberty sprang up; the liberty to enslave others:
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in the same word we do not mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name…. liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names…. Liberty and Tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty.
Lincoln was dead on in 1864 with his philosophical thoughts on liberty. They are no less true today. At some time in the future we will look back with horror and revulsion on the idea that one group of people with religious convictions should, in the name of liberty, have the temerity to restrict the basic rights of another group because they have a different sexual orientation. This will be the same kind of revulsion we currently feel looking back at a society in Lincoln's day determined to go to war to protect the liberty to own other human beings.