Kim Davis is the clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, responsible for issuing marriage licenses, and the latest citizen to find herself at the center of a national controversy over marriage, homosexuality, and the law.
Davis understands that marriage is between one man and one woman. After the Supreme Court nationalized a mistaken understanding of marriage in Obergefell Davis ceased issuing marriage licenses and instructed everyone else in her office to do the same. Lawsuits followed, which she lost, but Davis continues to refuse to allow her office to issue marriage licenses. Yesterday, she was held in contempt and taken to prison.
Davis is now a hero to many, an example of faithfulness in the face of persecution. It is not hard to understand the sentiment. The LGBT activist movement achieved its greatest victory in Obergefell, and the implications of that decision are coming to fruition as the sincerely held religious beliefs of Christians conflict with their expansive agenda. The move to lionize Davis is a response born largely of indignation about this new reality and the desire to do something to stop it.
A supporter of the Manhattan Declaration epitomized this sense of frustration in an email sent to me about Davis:
Ok folks, so, here’s the deal: this courageous woman needs to be our Rosa Parks. If she is not, then, it’s time to write off America as the land of the free and the home of the brave. Write it off, I said. It’s over.
This supporter is not alone. A number of prominent faith leaders have lined up in support of Davis, including the courageous folks at Liberty Counsel, led by Mathew Staver, who are providing her legal representation.
First Things editor R.R. Reno begins his defense of Davis: “I’m sympathetic to Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who has stopped signing marriage licenses. In her position, I’d do the same.”
The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer argues that Kim Davis “is the only one in this sorry saga who is following the law and the Constitution.”
At the CrippleGate blog, evangelical pastor Jesse Johnson exhorts:
Christians should be supportive of other believers in complex situations trying to do what is morally right in complex times. And it deeply bothers me how many people who just a few months ago were so dogmatic that “the Supreme Court can’t tell me what marriage is!” are now telling Davis to get over herself. We don’t have to choose to be on Davis’ side or on the SSM side. But we do need to be on the side of righteousness, and opposed to sin.
The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson points to a possible resolution that would reasonably accommodate Davis’ conscience rights without throwing a wrench in the gears of the administration of the law. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has called on the Governor of Kentucky to request a special session of the legislature to create such an accommodation.
Others, while sharing Davis’ convictions about marriage and supporting her constitutional right to live and work in light of her beliefs, argue that her defiance is wrong. Rod Dreher writes, “Religious liberty is hugely important, but it’s not a trump card. She should appoint someone in her office who has no sincere religious objection to providing same-sex couples with marriage licenses to handle that task. If she cannot in good conscience do this, she should resign.”
So is Kim Davis right or wrong?
Unfortunately, the Bible is not cut and dry about situations such as these. As Al Mohler writes:
So, while a colleague argues that respecting the rule of law in this situation makes one a moral relativist, and my friend Todd Starnes asks via Twitter, “Should Christians in public service ignore the Book of Daniel?” I believe the right thing is for Davis to resign. Anderson and Perkins are right about the ideal resolution for Davis, but since an accommodation seems unlikely, I agree with Dreher. By resigning she would not defy her conscience and fulfill her biblical responsibility to obey the law and honor the government.
The Bible is clear — a Christian cannot act in violation of conscience without committing sin. Kim Davis has been clear, even as her own marital background has been discussed, that her conversion and Christian beliefs do not allow her to sanction what the Bible declares to be sin.
At the same time, the Christian church has long struggled to understand how Christian faithfulness is translated into faithful decisions in any number of political and legal situations. How would a faithful congregation advise Mrs. Davis to fulfill her Christian commitment? Should she remain in office and refuse to issue marriage licenses? Should she resign her office? Exhausting appeals to a higher court, should she now obey Judge Bunning’s order? Should she defy that order and go to jail?
There is no automatically right answer to these questions. Each can be rooted in Christian moral argument, and any one of these options might be argued as right under the circumstances.
In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are told they must worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image of gold or be thrown into a fiery furnace. In Daniel 6, Daniel is faced with a similar choice: avoid worshipping God or be thrown to the lions. In both cases, faithful men stand firm in the face of unjust rulers and suffer the consequences. This is an example to every Christian of the potential cost of faith. However, there is another lesson in Daniel 1. Fresh upon arrival in Babylon, Daniel and his friends are told they have to eat royal food and wine. Rather than defile themselves, they ask for and receive an accommodation from the law. They don’t escalate the situation to the level of fires and lions, they seek a reasonable solution that allows them to live in light of their beliefs while others live in light of theirs.
In Acts 4-5 Peter and John are ordered to cease their preaching. They refuse, and are beaten. After receiving their punishment, we are told “The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. And every day, in the Temple and from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: “Jesus is the Messiah.”” There is no appeal to outside authority for relief. The apostles don’t decry the injustice of their suffering. Rather, they accept it as the natural consequence of living in a sinful world. Perhaps they had in mind Jesus’ words: ““If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:18-20)
Jesus instructed in Matthew 22, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” For a long time, Christians in America enjoyed the blessings of life in a Democratic Republic in which cultural norms reflected the shared biblical values of the majority. Rendering unto Caesar is easier when Caesar shares your values. That has been changing for decades, and Obergefell marks a tipping point.
There may come a day when civil disobedience is the only option, when no accommodation is afforded and the only choice is between faith and imprisonment. That is not the case here. Unlike photographers, bakers, and florists who have been attacked for operating businesses in light of their beliefs, Davis chose to be an agent of the state. Her job is to administer the law. She ought to receive a reasonable accommodation that would allow her to do her job without compromising her beliefs, but the state of Kentucky has failed her. So, the cost of her convictions is the loss of her job. She should embrace it as an opportunity for rejoicing.