Here’s the thing about Kim Davis and the trouble she finds herself in: There was always an honest way around it. All the county clerk from Rowan County, Ky., had to do was to defer to the deputy clerks in the office who were willing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She would have been able to maintain her religious beliefs while obeying the law, as her oath requires.
Indeed, that is what is happening. The judge who jailed Davis last week freed her on Monday, on condition that she not interfere with her deputies who are now performing that task.
Yet Davis took the martyr’s route, and while there is an element of courage in her path, she chose it unnecessarily and unwisely. She is free to oppose same-sex marriage, but if she cannot do this job, then she needs to find other work. This isn’t about religious freedom, it’s about equal protection under the law.
It is important to note, too, that for those who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds, neither Davis nor any other clerk is performing this task under the color of religion. The clerks are issuing government licenses, not performing or encouraging any religious ceremony.
Yet, Davis chose jail rather than issuing licenses herself or handing the task off to her deputies. Among her supporters are political conservatives who liken her resistance to that of Rosa Parks or, even more preposterously, Martin Luther King Jr.
For both of those heroes of the civil rights movement, the point was to fight discrimination, not to defend it. African-Americans were being beaten, shot, lynched, deprived of the vote, denied jobs and more for no reason other than skin color. At their own peril, Parks and King acted against that bigoted machine.
Yes, Davis was practicing civil disobedience, as Parks and King did, but the similarities end there. For civil disobedience to be worthy of broad support, its purpose must be to expand or preserve freedom, not to preserve the right to discriminate.
Davis’ decision was based, at least in part, on deeply held religious beliefs, of course, and that merits acknowledgment. But the hard fact is that she and her supporters are less like Parks in their refusal to grant marriage licenses and more like the driver who ordered Parks to sit in the back of the bus.
It is possible, and even important, to appreciate the conundrum faced by those whose religion rejects same-sex marriage. The change in American society has been sudden by historical standards and, from their perspective, wrenching and inexplicable.
If Davis were merely another citizen, she would be within her rights to act against same-sex marriage. She could carry a poster, run for office or campaign for candidates whose election could lead to changes on the Supreme Court. That’s the American way.
But she is not merely another citizen. She is a government official who is required to fulfill her duties. It’s not about her personal beliefs, it’s about the job and that, too, is the American way.
An apt comparison has been circulating on social media. If a Quaker, or adherent of another pacifist religion, were elected county clerk, would she be within her rights to refuse to issue firearms permits? Or should her opposition to the use of guns require her to find other work?
The answer is clear, as even many politically conservative observers – those not running for president, anyway – have noted. The personal, religious conflict for Davis is real, but the public crisis is manufactured. There were easy and moral ways out. She should have taken one or the other.