The situation involving Rowan County, Ky., clerk Kim Davis remained in flux as this issue of Church & State went to press, but one thing is clear: This woman is no hero.
Davis, an elected official, declined to issue marriage licenses to any couple – straight or gay – because of her religious beliefs in opposition to same-sex marriage. Put simply, she refused to do a major aspect of her job because of her theological views.
Faced with this dilemma, the right thing for Davis to do was resign. But $80,000-a-year jobs aren’t easy to come by in a hardscrabble region of eastern Kentucky, and Davis decided she’d like to keep hers. Backed by Liberty Counsel, one of the nation’s more extreme Religious Right legal groups, Davis argued she had a right under religious freedom to deny couples their legal right to marry.
Federal courts didn’t buy it. Davis’ attorneys took her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court; all of them refused to issue a stay of a lower court ruling requiring Davis to issue the licenses.
Davis continued to refuse. She was then found in contempt of court, turned over to the custody of federal marshals and taken to the Carter County Detention Center.
The howls of protest were immediate and sustained. Several Republican presidential candidates came to Davis’ defense, and Religious Right groups were quick to assert that Davis’ imprisonment would only be the beginning of widespread persecution against Christians.
One fact was overlooked: Davis had to work really hard to end up behind bars. She had multiple opportunities to avoid that fate, and she turned down every one of them.
Davis could have allowed her staff of clerks to sign marriage licenses. Several of them were willing. She ordered them not to. Also, seeing which way the legal trend was going, she could have stepped down. She refused.
When U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning summoned Davis for a contempt hearing, he offered her yet another opportunity to do her job and abide by the law. She refused again – and added that she would continue to instruct her staff not to issue the licenses.
Many people were surprised that Bunning sent Davis to jail instead of fining her. But as the judge noted, Davis had been so recalcitrant that mere fines would likely not have dissuaded her.
Bunning, a conservative appointee of President George W. Bush, reminded Davis that she could not be a law unto herself.
“Personal opinions, including my own, are not relevant to today,” Bunning told Davis during her contempt hearing. “The idea of natural law superseding this court’s authority would be a dangerous precedent indeed.”
Despite what Religious Right leaders and their political allies may claim, Davis was not sent to jail for her devout Christian beliefs. She was sent to jail because her taxpayer-funded job as a public official required her to sign marriage licenses for couples who, the Supreme Court recently ruled, have a legal right to marry under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Davis decided she did not want to do that part of her job. Furthermore, she ordered others not to do it as well. According to Davis, the mere appearance of her name on a same-sex couple’s wedding license would somehow make her complicit in a union she does not and cannot accept.
No one doubts the sincerity of Davis’ belief. The answer, therefore, was for her to step down. She refused. She wasn’t sent to jail for her Christian beliefs. She wasn’t even sent to jail for refusing to do her job. She was sent to jail because she commited contempt of court.
What happens now? If the past is any indicator, Davis will work the Religious Right speaking circuit, perhaps being lauded as a hero by groups like the Family Research Council and the American Family Association. Perhaps a ghost-writer will help her crank out a book, and it’s likely she’ll get plenty of airtime on the Fox News Channel.
Maybe that will be gratifying to her for a while. But in the long run, Davis won’t win accolades. She will be remembered as a fundamentalist zealot whose 15 minutes of fame came because she arrogantly refused to follow the law and respect the rights of others. She will be recalled as someone whose hate drove her to extremes. She will be remembered as the kind of person no thoughtful man or woman wants to be like.
Davis will be remembered as George Wallace, Orval Faubus and those Southern racists you see in old photos whose faces are twisted masks of hate as they rail against African American children trying to enter a school are remembered today – relics of an uglier time.
In the future, people will shake their heads when they think of her and say, “Can you believe people once behaved this way?”
The judgment of history will come, and it won’t be kind to Kim Davis. Many labels are being applied to her now. Many more will be applied to her in the future. “Hero” will not be among them.