Rosa Parks, for those who forgot, was an African American woman arrested for failing to give up her seat on a public transit bus to a white person. Second class citizen, pays her fare, must sit at the back, and sometimes give up her seat, standing with groceries, on tired feet, in case a white person wanted to sit. Not optional. Not “please give these seats to the disabled and elderly,” where any able young person who doesn’t is rightly judged a jerk. Rosa Parks – as a matter of law –suffered nowhere near ‘separate but equal’ service in the presence of whites. She defied the law which commanded her thus. She resisted the power of state officials to deny her equality. She rejected their abuse of authority to deny her a right equal to the whites to whom she had to yield.
Kim Davis is no Rosa Parks. Davis is a public official, vested with the power of government to carry out vital functions for the people of Rowan County. Not for some of the people – ALL of the people. She is vested with authority to uphold county, state, and federal laws. Not some laws, at her discretion, which correspond with her personal convictions – ALL those laws. She is free to believe what she likes about gays and lesbians and homosexual marriage. The First Amendment enshrines this freedom for her as for every private citizen, as a matter of personal conscience. The First Amendment burdens government to ensure individuals are protected in the enjoyment of their civil liberties regardless of their faith or lack of it. It protects her and the people of Rowan County in the enjoyment of that same freedom. Among those civil liberties is the liberty to marry. Heterosexual residents of Rowan County have enjoyed that right for a while now. Homosexual residents of Rowan County are now able to enjoy that same civil liberty. Except for Kim Davis.
By denying same sex couples the issuance of marriage licenses, she uses the power of her office to deny them that liberty. The power to issue marriage licenses is a governmental power, not a personal power. It is an authority vested in the office, not in her person. It is a power subject to the county, state, and federal law. It is not her personal power to decide the nature of the law or the constitution. Her personal convictions are not the measure of the law. Her conduct as an official, vested with the authority of the government, is to ensure that the residents of Rowan County enjoy their civil liberties free from religious burden. Her use of this authority to enforce her personal convictions – religious or otherwise – should be rejected as resoundingly as was that of those who denied Rosa Parks.
Enter the new ayatollahs. America deeply identifies as a Christian country. Most of the citizenry identify as Christian. This leads some people – many in positions of governmental power – to believe that their faith should guide their actions, should be a basis for law and policy, and should be the basis for their discretionary use of their authority. Their faith. Creating and applying law accordingly. We must live according to their faith. Our enjoyment of our liberties, according to their faith. These are the new ayatollahs, American-style. They come professing individual rights, citing the constitution, claiming liberty for all, according to their faith. Their Jesus tells them that homosexuality is an abomination. But there’s another Jesus, who eats with the lepers and washes their dead, unafraid that his faith will be tainted by those whom he aids. That Jesus does not deny fish and bread to the hungry even as they are sinners. That Jesus bakes a wedding cake for a gay couple, unafraid that their choices define his own.
The founding constitutionalists were deeply religious. But they were near enough to the corrosive conjoining of religion with political power to recognize individual personal liberty required a strict separation of religious conviction from government authority. They crafted a nation in which it mattered not whether one had faith. Theirs was a vision wherein individuals enjoy equally the freedom to determine their own lives according to their private convictions. If it’s a Christian country, it’s also among the remarkably few to demand that religious conviction remain a matter of private conscience, not a directive of public policy. It matters not whether the entire citizenry enjoys the same faith. It matters only that county clerks, as with all public officials enacting governmental authority, not demand the rest of the citizenry conform to their conscience.
Some say Davis has a right not to be made to violate her faith. True. But she does not have a right to do it in her official capacity as county clerk. No one has a right to be a county clerk. She can adhere to and worship as she believes. In her official capacity as county clerk, it is her responsibility – yes, I said her RESPONSIBILITY – to ensure that the residents of Rowan County are not denied their civil liberties because of someone else’s – including her own – personal convictions to the contrary.
Issue the marriage licenses. That is her responsibility. And, if she cannot reconcile her conscience with her official duty, perhaps she should follow the example of Apostle Matthew who could no longer render unto Caesar, could no longer reconcile his duty as tax collector with his faith. The burden of his faith was his to bear, not his co-workers, not his fellow citizens, not the government to accommodate his public office to his private conscience.
Department of Philosophy