The meaning of religious freedom


In the American folk-hero sweepstakes, Kim Davis doesn’t come close to Norma Rae or Rosa Parks. Davis is the clerk of Rowan County, Ky., who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and served five days in jail for contempt of court. In playing out her act of defiance, Davis was not speaking religious-freedom truth to power. Instead, she was flouting the law of the land, enshrined in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized gay marriage.

We don’t question Davis’ claimed religious belief. Nor would we support an effort to force her to do something that violates her religious dictates. But there is nothing unique about Davis’ religious dilemma.

Our country has always made room in law and in custom for conscientious objectors. Be it Muslims who don’t want to distribute alcohol, Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t want to raise flags or Jews who don’t want to work on Saturday, we have supported “workarounds” — in which another worker performs the duties that the employee feels violate his or her religious conscience. These kinds of religious accommodations make the life of our citizenry more comfortable, without threatening the cohesion of our government or society. Just such a workaround could easily be implemented in the Rowan County Clerk’s office.

The real threat from the Davis situation comes from those who have tried to exploit the case and tried to elevate it into a threat to religious freedom. For example, former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has described the Davis case as “the criminalization of Christianity in this country,” saying that “we must defend religious liberty and never surrender to judicial tyranny.” Huckabee’s call against “judicial tyranny” is demagoguery, and his claim that that Christianity is under attack rings false. Obergefell v. Hodges is no more tyrannical than the landmark campaign finance case Citizens United, with which many people disagreed. But not every disagreement needs to be elevated to an existential confrontation.

Polls show that more religious Americans approve of same-sex marriage than not. Whether the Kim Davises of the country are in the majority or the minority, their rights must be protected. But that protection cannot come at undue cost to everyone else.

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  1. Contrary to the Editors comment, IMO the real threat from the Davis situation came from the Judge who threw Davis in jail, usurping the people’s, the legislature’s and the executive’s authorities over issues involving the performance of elected officials. As the Editor noted we make work arounds for conscientous objectors. Those work arounds are the job of the chief executive and/or the legislature. Otherwise it’s up to the voters.

    Save us from judges running wild and making personnel decisions that put elected officials in jail. Judge Bunning IMO over reached and deserves to be subjected to impeachment proceedings for his illegally rushing to judgement.

    This stuff is complicated. The founders foresaw conflicts when they wrote Article 6 of the Constitutition – the supremacy clause – which is taught to every high school sophmore. In almost one breadth, Article 6 (a) tells all elected officials at all levels to hold the Federal law as supreme when local and state laws conflict, and (b) tells us all that there shall be no religious tests for holding office. We have been hectored about “the rule of law” being the “only issue in this matter. Well, not quite. When the law conflicts with one’s religious beliefs, we owe all citizens, even office holders, the right to a work around that accomodates individual’s rights vs. society’ needs as enacted in law.

    Finally, speaking of the supremacy clause, how did we ever come to a time when state and local laws like sanctuary cities and legalizing pot trump Federal law. THAT IMO is what should be taking up our time – not tossing an elected marriage clerk in jail.


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