Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Break the Law

Two things we’ll establish from the start here. A long time ago (and I mean a LOOOONG time ago), I attended Butler University with the ambition of going to law school following completion of my undergraduate work. I enjoyed the pursuit of the truth, figuring out the “right” answer to an investigation (a court case) and, perhaps most of all, the debate that came along with the profession. Secondly, I’ve never had a particularly close relationship with religion; I’ve personally always believed that the separation of Church and State isn’t a flimsy one and, quite honestly, that religion doesn’t take science into its canon to be able to answer the myriad questions of life (“you have to have faith” isn’t an answer, unfortunately). Thus, the recent hubbub in the state of Kentucky has particularly intrigued me.

In June, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled on the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry in the United States. After heartfelt and legally well-thought oral arguments from both sides, the Court decided by the slimmest of margins (5-4) that states could not deny those that sought to marry someone of the same sex that ability, basically asserting that marriage, under the “pursuit of Happiness” clause in the U. S. Constitution, was a right. As expected, the Court broke along philosophical lines, with the four conservative justices dissenting, the four liberal justices concurring and Chief Justice Anthony Kennedy, famous for being the “swing” vote in many decisions in front of the Court, joining the liberal justices and even writing the majority opinion in the decision.

This set about a shitstorm that only reached its apex last month. The state of Texas initially decried the ruling and, for a period, refused to issue licenses for same sex couples. The Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore, decided that the ruling by a court superior to his own wouldn’t apply to his jurisdiction. Both of these states decided, after further review and a look at the costs of pursuing a lengthy legal battle, that the issue was settled and apparently have reluctantly begun to issue the licenses. Then, last month, an elected official decided to take the fight the ultimate distance.

In August, a woman elected to the Rowan County, Kentucky Clerk of Courts office began refusing to issue licenses to same-sex couples, citing that it conflicted with her “religious beliefs” in “God’s authority” (as if issuing a piece of paper would sentence her to fiery pits of Hell). The woman, Kim Davis, did take the right approach in that she didn’t issue ANY marriage licenses in the county, even to those of the opposite sex, but that wasn’t going to hold up for long (in fact, when a lawsuit was brought against her by the American Civil Liberties Union, it was filed by two same-sex couples and two opposite-sex couples). Davis went to the U. S. District Court, which shot her arguments down and ruled she had to issue the licenses.

Give Davis her due, she does have a true commitment to her beliefs. She continued to appeal the decisions up the ladder to the Appellate Courts for the Sixth District and, eventually, to the desk of Chief Justice Elena Kagan, the overseer of the Sixth District and one of the nine Supreme Court Justices who made the ruling back in June. Kagan filed Davis’ request for a stay on Monday morning; the full Court declined to issue a stay without any comment early on Tuesday, with the previous decision by the District Court standing and ordering Davis to start issuing same-sex couples licenses or face ramifications.

The ramifications are potentially significant, especially for Davis. Should she continue to defy the “law of the land,” Davis could be forced from the position that the people of Rowan County elected her to hold at the minimum and, at the maximum, could be jailed for her refusal to issue a piece of paper. As it stands at this time, the offices of the Clerk of Court of Rowan County are darkened as Davis considers her next step.

There’s been quite a bit of discussion over “religious freedom,” the right to exercise your religious beliefs in society, and Davis’ fight is only the most recent example of the discussion. I personally have never thought this was a problem – Can you worship openly? Can you wear a religious medallion or trinket without having your head hacked off? Can you openly have holidays that are religiously based? If the answer to these questions are “Yes,” then you’re not being subjugated and you have “religious freedom.” – and it really isn’t a problem now except for the fact that the laws of the U. S. aren’t in relation with the beliefs of some of those religious factions. When it comes to operating the government – be it local, state or national – religious beliefs have to be left at the door.

Many like to state that the “Founding Fathers” brought the concept of democracy and the United States as a God-ordained and religiously ruled governmental philosophy. Truth be told, there couldn’t be anything further from the truth. You need some examples?

“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.” George Washington, 1792

“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”Thomas Jefferson, 1814

“The civil government functions with complete success by the total separation of the Church from the State.”James Madison, 1819

This is just scratching the surface. I could go on, but you get the point.

The oath that military members take upon enlistment says you will follow the orders of the Commander in Chief (the President of the United States) and defend the U. S. and the Constitution against all enemies “foreign and domestic” (maybe we’ll get into that one of these days). When you’re in the military, you don’t get to decide which orders you want to follow. You have to follow ALL orders (unless it can be proven that the order is an “illegal” one, a bar that is set very high and for good reason). Although Davis’ situation may not be as extreme as that of being in the military, as an elected official you also take an oath to uphold the laws of the United States and defend the Constitution.

Once an elected official takes that oath, they no longer have the right of refusing an action, order or law because of their religious beliefs because if you choose to serve in a public forum as an elected official, then you have to abide by the public law. . If the position is an appointed one, then there might be a different answer to the question, but that isn’t what has come up in any previous situation in Texas, Alabama or Davis’ situation in Kentucky. If we allowed for the “picking and choosing” of which laws people wanted to follow, the U. S. would descend into a chaos that would be unimaginable.

So what should be Davis’ potential punishment and the outcome of the case? I personally believe that jailing Davis would be the worst move possible in that it would only give certain groups a “martyr” to hang the hat of their cause on. A fine isn’t going to do any good either as those same groups would just head over to GoFundMe to start an ever-refilling account. There are only two actions that can be a just outcome for this case:  Davis can come out, state that she still holds her religious objections to same-sex marriage but will abide by the law and issue the licenses, or that Davis resigns her elected position in the Rowan County government immediately and a new person is elected.

There are some areas where the “religious freedom” argument can still be discussed. I am still personally debating the usage of the argument for individual businesses and, as of yet, have been unable to come up with a concrete answer for that situation. When it comes to Church and State, however, the concrete is quite firm in that never shall the twain meet. If we undermine that situation, then we move closer to a theocracy, something that U. S. citizens continually rail about with the government of Iran.

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2 comments on “Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Break the Law

  1. […] READ EARL BURTON’S RECENT TAKE ON THE CONTROVERSY, which is the best overview I’ve seen. […]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] there was the controversy regarding Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue ANY marriage licenses due to her […]

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