Having Her Cake

September 7, 2015 11:16 a.m.

While I’ve been away I’ve seen how the story of Kim Davis, the county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, has become the news of the moment, a sort of comical afterbirth to this summer’s historic Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality. The Christian right lauds her as a martyr to religious liberty while the pro-LGBT rights community lambastes her as hypocrite who is herself on her fourth marriage. For myself, I have a hard time taking either line very seriously because Davis’s argument, claim, hill to die on or whatever is so absurd it simply lacks the drama to mean anything more than a solitary ignoramus who will soon be crashed on the rocks of her own ridiculousness.

As a country we give extreme indulgence, rightly, to people’s religious scruples. We set a high standard for enforcing laws when they were force people to violate their own religious beliefs. And there are contested gray areas where one person’s purported religious scruples run into another person’s legally protected or guaranteed rights. The Hobby Lobby decision is a good example of this. In the past, these questions have been resolved by the public nature of doing business as a corporation. Now the Supreme Court has decided otherwise.

But Davis’s beef has nothing to do with any of these established norms or even contested cases. Davis opposes gay marriage for what she claims are religious reasons. No one is forcing her to marry a woman, officiate at a same sex marriage or do anything else. But there’s a hitch. She’s also county clerk, a job which has been handed down within her family as a sort of property. And the job – like police officers, judges and a slew of other government positions – is in the business of enforcing laws. But now the laws of the state and country include a law which she says violates her religious beliefs.

This is a tough position and her only real choice in line with her religious beliefs is to resign her position so as not to violate those beliefs – even though it was a good paying job she inherited from her mother and plans to pass on to her son. But Davis doesn’t want to give her job! Who does? She wants a job enforcing the public laws. But there’s a public law she doesn’t want to enforce, which means she really can’t do the job without violating her religious beliefs. But she doesn’t have the courage of her convictions that would allow her to quit her job. It’s a classic case of wanting to have your cake and eat it too. So she wants to be able to keep her job but just not do part of it, sacrifice for her religious beliefs but also hold on to the job. This is never what religious liberty has meant in any context ever.

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