Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis was released from jail this week. An elected public official, Davis had refused to sign marriage licenses in resistance to the United States Supreme Court’s June ruling that same-sex couples have a right to marry. When Davis was told to issue the licenses or face contempt of court, she defied the order. She was then put in jail by U.S District Judge David Bunning. Bunning released Davis after four days because her deputy clerks were willing to issue the marriage licenses. So far Davis has not returned to work.
Davis said her civil disobedience was necessary because of her Christian faith. To issue a marriage license for a same-sex couple would “violate my conscience,” she claimed. Some Christians herald her actions; others strongly disagree with her. Like so many political challenges, much depends on how the question is framed.
If we frame this issue as one of religious freedom of an employee we will have a sympathetic response to Davis. Should employees with sincere religious commitments be given an exemption when their job requires them to do something that they believe is a violation of a deeply held religious belief? Yes. We have not only the First Amendment religious freedom clauses to support this perspective, but also Title VII, a federal law that says employers must accommodate religious beliefs of employees wherever possible.
But if we frame the issue differently, an entirely new set of concerns comes to light. Should an elected official be allowed to pick and choose which laws to enforce based on his or her religious beliefs? Should that official be allowed to grant the benefit of public law to some citizens but not others based on the official’s religion? Of course not.
The issue is not really Davis’ religion or same-sex marriage. The real question for Christians is whether there is a Biblical view of the law. Those in the Reformed tradition, who profess that all of life is under the hand of God, would say yes: our view of the law stands on our fundamental commitment to Jesus Christ.
The issue is not really Davis’ religion or same-sex marriage.
So, what does that commitment look like when we are talking about the rule of law? Christians often fall into one of two categories when thinking about the role of law under God’s authority. Some argue that God’s law for the lives of Christians should also be the law of the land. This is theonomy, advanced by people like R.J. Rushdoony. We see this model in Old Testament Israel and we also see it in modern-day theocracies that practice sharia law.
A second Biblical perspective on law focuses on pluralism: pluralism of worldviews and pluralism of institutions. This approach is advanced by theologians like Miroslav Volf and organizations like the Center for Public Justice. Their argument is that while law falls under the authority of God, in a fallen world God’s desire for government advances equal, public justice for all people no matter what their faith commitment. And so some in this category argue that whether or not same-sex marriage is considered sinful, the public benefits of marriage should be recognized for all people. Therefore, public officials are responsible to apply the law equally to everyone, no matter what their own faith tradition might say about marriage.
It will come as no surprise to those who have read my other TC articles that I have no sympathy for Kim Davis. If public officials can’t enforce the law they should step down. Further, I think her position has weakened other, more reasonable requests for religious accommodation. While public officials like Davis have a public responsibility, the responsibility of a private business owner that serves the public is a somewhat different matter. And so I am sympathetic to those conservative Christian wedding photographers and wedding cake bakers who say they cannot in good conscience use their art and talent in service to a gay couple. Private businesses need to follow nondiscrimination in service to customers, but I wish we could think about compromise for people whose business involves them in an artistic manner. The voice of an artist is deeply personal, more so than the voice of someone who signs a license for marriage.
This is a complicated issue with many ramifications. Christians who supported Kim Davis’ request for an exemption to the law have lost a lot of ground in the public eye. In fact, the possibility of legal, political compromise now for Christian bakers and wedding photographers seems to me to be almost an impossibility in the face of Kim Davis’ stand.