As the seemingly endless Kim Davis saga continues to play out, I have been struck by two entirely predictable phenomenon. First, the mainstream media has used this controversy to marginalize Christians and people of faith as behind-the-times if not hateful. Unfortunately, the mainstream media isn’t changing anytime soon, and conservatives and Christians just have to deal with unceasing bias and abuse. Second, I have found it interesting but entirely unsurprising that Ms. Davis is a Democrat, as that party is often the one lacking empathy and placing too much power in the hands of the government. Sadly, some conservatives have taken up her cause by making what amounts to a weak freedom of religion argument in defense of her action.
To be conservative is to support the limitation of the state’s power over its citizenry; each individual bureaucrats’ powers should be tightly restricted and regulated to ensure equal treatment and limit cronyism. Whether interacting with Official A or B, you should get the same outcome. Placing inordinate power in the hands of public officials is the hallmark of leftist authoritarian regimes where members of the government decide what job you have or in extremes whether you live or die—just ask those who refused to toe the party line in the Soviet Union. Placing unnecessary discretion in the hand of public officials gives the state power over its people.
We have seen this transpire on a small scale in the United States. Depending on what city you live in, some immigration laws are enforced while others are ignored, leading to horrible tragedies like Kate Steinle’s death. Our President blatantly ignores immigration laws, single-handedly rewrites EPA policies, and premised his signature law around the idea that government officials were best suited to determine what should be covered in healthcare insurance plans. Conservatives rightly balk at these measures because they concentrate more power in an inefficient, corrupt federal government. Together, these actions give the state more power over the people, bringing us closer to the tyranny we have spent centuries fighting against.
This brings us to the case of Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis who does not want to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, citing religious differences. Ms. Davis has been critical of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling that legalized gay marriage, and for good reason! Justices Roberts, Scalia, and others have made persuasive arguments against the ruling’s legal logic. However, we cannot have a system where every government employee chooses which court ruling to apply and which to ignore. That would lead to total anarchy. If the Supreme Court over-reached, our constitution provides a path to rectify the situation. The legislative branch can craft new laws to nullify the ruling or if necessary amend the constitution, but until Congress acts, government employees need to respect the Court’s decisions. To act otherwise and let officials ignore rulings would essentially doom the Judiciary to irrelevancy and give the executive virtually unchecked power.
That leaves Davis with only a religious liberty argument—her religion teaches that same-sex unions are morally wrong and so she cannot be a party to one. Some conservatives have gravitated to this argument in recent days, but I fear they do so because they agree with Davis on gay marriage without thinking through the consequences. After all, the government does not rule on the wisdom of religious beliefs, it must protect and respect all sincerely held beliefs equally. If someone sincerely feels inter-racial marriages are against religious convictions, could they deny a license? If someone felt second marriages were immoral, should they be allowed to deny all licenses to divorced individuals?
Moreover, many religions stress fidelity and other requirements. Should each county clerk be allowed to ask prying questions to prospective couples to ensure the marriage meets that clerk’s own standard? Do we want government officials really exerting that much control over Americans, particularly over an issue as important and personal as marriage? The government, and by extension its officials, should not be prying into intimate details of its citizens private lives. There are likely religious issues with many marriages that have been approved by Davis and others; it just so happens the issues are more visible with gay couples. Should we treat gay couples differently because the potential religious issues are just harder to hide?
In the end, we as a society need to balance two rights, first, Davis’ right to believe what she wants, and every American’s right to purse happiness, including after the Supreme Court’s ruling, gay people’s right to marry. It is a delicate act, and throwing Davis in jail was clearly unnecessary. While I can see the pull to support Davis on religious grounds, this only concentrates more power in the hand of the government, giving officials more power and discretion. I ask: would President Obama’s immigration actions be any less lawless if they were driven by religious motivations? Government officials need to enforce all laws, even those they disagree with, to avoid cronyism and the concentration of power. Ultimately, the rights of the public have to outweigh the rights of government officials for an official can always resign but the public can’t just find a new, freer country.
Conservatives should be fighting for individuals’ freedom, rather than siding with Ms. Davis and putting more power in the hands of the government. This is really a battle about the role of government in our lives not about religious freedom. In my relatively short life as a young gay man, I have found conservatives and the Republican Party to be the champions of openness and acceptance, and democrats the party of division and intolerance. That is because conservatives see the uniqueness and beauty in each individual rather than in a central state. I just hope conservatives turn away from Davis’s antics and return to these roots.
Unfortunately, incidents like this can easily be used to unfairly caricature the party as having outdated if not bigoted beliefs. It is time for the real Republican Party to stand-up, the big tent that believes in fair play and the innate decency of all people with a government that does not involve itself unnecessarily in private lives or private markets. This is the party I’ve come to know and support. Given how younger Americans, democrat and republican alike, feel about same-sex marriage, certain members of the Republican Party needs to stop their knee-jerk reactions to incidents like this one if we are to be a viable, national party in coming years. Fortunately, the politically wise stance that Davis should issue licenses is also in keeping with true conservative principles: that the government and its officials serve the people not the reverse. It is time for Ms. Davis to serve all of her constituents, including those seeking same-sex marriage licenses, and if she doesn’t want to do that, she should step aside.