By making us aware of what they really mean by "religious freedom," Kim Davis may be the Religious Right's worst nightmare
The drama continues to play out at the Rowan County, Kentucky Courthouse, or as some now call it, Nepotism Central. The backstory, about which I have previously written and which is widely known, is relatively simple and equally clear.
Kim Davis, the county clerk, disagreed, on the basis of her religious convictions, with the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges – a decision that granted same-sex couples the right to marry.
Based on her religious belief that same-sex marriage is wrong/immoral, she exercised her religious freedom by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Her logic was that, if a marriage license bearing her name was issued to a gay couple, she would be complicit in what she considers a wrong/immoral act. And, given her stated religious convictions about same-sex marriage (whether they are sound, reasonable or not), her logic was sound.
However, Ms. Davis discovered, to her apparent—or, feigned(?)—surprise, that, while the Constitution protects one’s freedom to act on the basis of his/her religious convictions, it does not protect one from the consequences pursuant to that action. Oops!
That Ms. Davis (1) refused to fulfill the duties of her elected position, (2) refused to uphold the settled law of the land and (3) refused to abide by an order issued by a U.S. District Judge as a free expression of her religious beliefs is irrelevant as to the issue of having to face the consequences of her choices. That one is acting on the basis of one’s religious beliefs provides neither exemption nor immunity from penalty if those actions are violative of civil law.
Indeed, in light of her continued refusal to follow his order per issuing marriage licenses to all qualified couples, U.S. District Judge David Bunning cited Ms. Davis for contempt and ordered her jailed on Thursday, September 3.
Ms. Davis is “represented” and “advised” by the far-right, anti-gay Liberty Counsel – a legal group that, in 2014, was designated as an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. I lack both the space and time to catalogue the craziness of this organization’s obsessive anti-gay demagoguery, but the fact that its chairman, Mat Staver, who regularly warns Christian groups that President Obama intends to impose – wait for it! – “forced homosexuality” on the American people is evidence enough that this crowd is Thorazine-ready.
Signing on with Liberty Counsel to support Ms. Davis have been several shameless candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination: The increasingly bizarre Mike Huckabee, the clownish Ted Cruz, the rapidly-fading Rand Paul, and the just-plain-pathetic Bobby Jindal.
They all, of course, claim that her “religious freedom” has been violated by the fact that she has had to shoulder the consequences of her choices. Ironically, though, the way in which they frame the issue actually debunks their accusation. The consequences she now faces didn’t prevent her from “choosing” to freely express her religious beliefs. It was her “choice” to freely express those beliefs that resulted in the consequences.
However, her initial argument rebutted, Ms. Davis, Liberty Counsel and her political support group are attempting to take the “religious freedom” argument to a different and, in terms of implications, far more threatening level.
Asked, on Wednesday, “by what authority” she was refusing to follow the orders of a federal judge, Ms. Davis responded by saying that she was acting under “the authority of God.”
Though I’m quite sure that most of the secular/non-religious community understands the full meaning of that phrase, allow me, as a member of the Christian tribe who is more than well-acquainted with such phraseology, to fully clarify the implications of it for those who don’t.
When she claims to be acting under “the authority of God,” Ms. Davis is stating that she has been personally authorized/ordered by God to refuse to issue the marriage licenses, to not, in essence, do her job or follow the orders of a federal judge to do her job. She is also stating that, because the authority for her actions came directly from God, she is entitled to immunity regarding any consequences levied by the state because “God’s laws” trump “man’s laws.”
This is Liberty Counsel’s standard argument, so one is not surprised to hear it applied to Ms. Davis’ case. However, it is more than disturbing to hear it embraced by individuals who are seeking to become president of the United States.
Huckabee, a politician parading as a Baptist minister, is predictably sympathetic to the self-imposed “plight” of Ms. Davis. But he became almost scary when, on Morning Joe, he pulled out his trove of hyperbole-from-hell and said that forcing Ms. Davis to face the music in response to her free expression of her religious beliefs represents the “criminalization of Christianity.”
He is, of course, wrong. And, he knows it. The music that Ms. Davis had to face is one of several standard options long-used by civil authorities to penalize persons who disregard a judicial order. Whether those punished are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Rastafari or none of the above is and, in the best traditions of American jurisprudence has been, irrelevant.
But Huckabee’s ideology/theology is no more extreme than most elements of America’s Religious Right, a group that has little appreciation, little money and no time for candidates who frame and speak about hot-button culture issues in clear, rational and honest terms. For Huckabee, assuming a pastoral identity of patient discernment and prophetic truthfulness is just not a winning strategy. He less leads the flock than follows it.
Cruz, Paul and Jindal each jumped into the fray by, first, flailing away at President Obama (who has absolutely nothing to do with the case) and, second, agreeing with Liberty Counsel, Ms. Davis and Mr. Huckabee that, if an action which violates civil law constitutes the expression of one’s religious beliefs, the agent of the action should be exempt from the consequences normally pursuant to it. Think about the implications of that for a moment.
None of them used the word “nullification,” but those who live in downtown Charleston swear they have, in the past week or so, heard John C. Calhoun trying to scratch his way out of his coffin in the churchyard of St. Philip’s.
But, beyond mere nullification, the end-game of their position is not just short-sighted but chaotic, confusing and worthy of being pitched as a sequel to the Mad Max movie.
Using the logic of Messrs. Staver, Huckabee, Cruz, Paul and Jindal, every individual, on the basis of his/her claimed religious belief, becomes a law unto himself/herself. After all, we don’t much do “qualifying tests” for religions and we don’t do “sincerity tests” for those who claim to be followers of those religions.
In the culture of their design, anything goes because everyone is free to do as he/she wishes without fear of consequences as long as he/she claims that his/her agency was “authorized by God.”
Or “authorized by Allah,” or Yahweh, George Burns, Yoda, Jah Rastafari, Charles Manson, David Koresh, or the name of whomever or whatever you deify, even if it is yourself. You get the picture.
“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” – Thomas Jefferson