Saturday, September 5, 2015

Kim Davis and the Limits of "Religious Freedom"

Back in June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage during the Obergefell v. Hodges case. Soon thereafter, Kim Davis refused to grant licenses for same-sex marriages in her capacity as elected clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky. Davis argued that issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples would violate her Apostolic Christian convictions, and flatly refused to comply with the law. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Davis on behalf of four couples, arguing that David violated the couples' constitutional rights. Months of legal wrangling followed, with Liberty Counsel representing Davis in court.

Davis' recalcitrance has impacted multiple couples. For example, James Yates and William Smith Jr. sought a marriage license at the Rowan County Courthouse multiple times in recent weeks, but were repeatedly turned away, according to the Courier-Journal. The Associated Press reported that another same-sex couple, David Moore and David Ermold, demanded to speak with Davis at the Rowan County Courthouse on September 1st. Moore and Ermold insisted that Davis "face the people she's discriminating against", AP reports.

On August 26th, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio denied Davis' request to stay a federal injunction requiring her to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, reported the Courier-Journal. On August 31st, a stay granted by the District Court expired, and the Supreme Court rejected Davis' emergency application for a fresh stay, according to the New York Times. Despite having no legal grounds for refusing to issue marriage licenses, Davis still refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in defiance of the court. WKYT reported on the immediate aftermath of her decision.

Kim Davis released a statement defending her defiance as a "Heaven or Hell decision".
"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."
Protesters for and against same-sex marriage gathered outside the courthouse where Kim Davis' proceedings took place.

Davis' refusal to provide marriage licenses for same-sex couples earned her the ire of regional attorneys and the ACLU. The Morehead News reported that on August 27th, the Rowan County Attorney's Office referred a charge of official misconduct to the Kentucky Attorney General's Office. CNN reports that the ACLU of Kentucky filed a motion in federal court requesting that David be held in contempt of court. While the ACLU of Kentucky did not want Davis incarcerated, they encouraged the court to impose financial penalties on Davis until she complied.

At least one powerful sympathizer tried to help Davis. The Courier-Journal reported that Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers submitted a brief to District Judge David Bunning, asking him to withhold action against Davis until the Kentucky General Assembly could take action.

Fortunately, the district judge would not be swayed. On September 3rd, Bunning found Davis in contempt of court and ordered U.S. marshals to take her into custody, according to the Washington Blade. Bunning admitted that Davis' "good faith belief is simply not a viable defense", reported the Associated Press. After Davis was taken into custody, demonstrators outside the courthouse reportedly chanted, "Love won! Love won!"

Roger Gannam, a lawyer on Davis' legal team, expressed disgust after Davis was taken into custody. "Today, for the first time in American history, an American citizen has been incarcerated for having the belief and conscience that marriage is a union of one man and one woman," Gannam complained, according to the Lexington Herald Leader. One would think that as a lawyer, Gannam should have understood that she was incarcerated for refusing to carry out her duties, not for her opinion on same-sex marriage.

With Davis incarcerated in the Carter County Detention Center, Rowan County officials could now issue marriage licenses unimpeded. According to the Lexington Herald Leader, Bunning asked Davis' six deputy clerks if they would comply with his order to provide marriage licenses. All but one agreed to obey. The sole dissenting clerk was Nathan Davis, Kim Davis' son.

Raw Story and CNN shared news of the happy ending to this story. On the morning of Friday, September 4th, James Yates and William Smith Jr. received a marriage license from a deputy clerk at the Rowan County Courthouse. It was their sixth attempt to receive a marriage license, according to CNN, and the milestone was greeted with cries of "Love wins!" from supporters outside.

The Kim Davis controversy reminds us of how right-wing Christians selectively defend "religious freedom". Davis refused to issue licenses to same-sex couples because of the Bible's ban on same-sex relations, and yet she conveniently ignored the Bible's other rules on marriage. Would Davis hide behind her faith if asked to grant marriage licenses to divorcees or non-virgins? Fundamentalist Christians claim to obey the Bible, but in reality they cherry-pick which parts they want to emphasize.

Furthermore, do we see fundamentalists like Davis getting half as angry over, say, mistreatment of the poor (which the Bible repeatedly condemns) as they do over LGBTQ issues (mentioned in only a handful of scriptural passages)? Of course not. This was never really about the Bible. Davis' deep-seated homophobia, not her faith, cemented her stubbornness.

The controversy also serves as an important reminder of the limits of right-wing "religious freedom" arguments. Davis' refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples was not only an act of homophobic discrimination, but was also dereliction of duty. The law requires an elected county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, regardless of her personal feelings. Davis is a representative of the government, and her so-called religious freedom did not absolve her of the responsibility to carry out the law.

With so many right-wing Christians demanding special treatment in the name of religious freedom, it's refreshing to see a fundamentalist held to the same standards as everyone else.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

Huffington Post: Gay Dad Sounds Off On Kentucky Clerk's Refusal To Issue Gay Marriage Licenses

Detroit Free Press: It's time to remove Kentucky clerk Kim Davis

Slate: Is Kentucky’s Infamous Anti-Gay Clerk Getting Taken for a Ride by Her Lawyers?

Good As You: Kim Davis: The Almost Too Perfect Coda to the Marriage Discrimination Fight

Gay Star News: Dear American Christians, Kim Davis and your ‘martyrs’ are failing you

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