Respect for Religion vs Respect for the Law?
It was 1958, and a young Virginia couple named Richard and Mildred Loving – she was black and Native American; he was white – were arrested and charged with violating the state’s law banning interracial marriages, one of many such laws found across the country.
To avoid a prison sentence, they moved to Washington DC and filed an appeal with the judge, Leon M. Bazile, who’d heard their original case. He refused to reconsider, and wrote in defense of racial segregation… “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix.”
Judge Bazile – a public servant – believed he could base his legal decision on his religious beliefs and on the law. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overruled him in the famous Living v Virginia decision, invalidating all anti-miscegenation laws in the country. Still, it took many years for those laws to be struck from state constitutions. And three years after that decision, an Alabama judge refused to grant a marriage license to an interracial couple. Other public servants did the same. They were all eventually overruled. Today, it is nearly impossible to find a public servant anywhere who refuses to issue a license for an interracial marriage. And you’d be hard pressed to find a marriage officiant of any faith who would refuse to perform the ceremony.
But here we have another public servant – Kentucky’s Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis – using religious beliefs to justify her refusal to uphold the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing same-sex marriage. She was sent to jail for that refusal.
Now, in Judge Bazile’s time, he could use the law to justify religious bigotry; he had the legal right to do so. And, no doubt he believed he was showing utmost respect for the law and his religion.
Today however, Ms. Davis has no such law to support her behavior. So, she has decided to put her religious beliefs above the law she swore to uphold. No doubt she feels she is showing the utmost respect for her religion. But, whether she admits it or not, she is showing the utmost disrespect for the law.
Geoffrey R Stone, a Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, summed it up concisely, “A public official, who acts as an agent of the government, simply cannot place her own religious beliefs above those of the constitutional obligations of the state and the constitutional rights of our citizens. Davis should have found a way to reconcile her personal religious beliefs with her official responsibilities, or she should have resigned.” In other words, despite her passionate supporters’ claims to the contrary, as a public servant, Kim Davis has no legal or Constitutional right to refuse to uphold the law.
Let’s look at it another way. Most of us respect people of faith and most of us respect the law. But, a public servant cannot expect to be respected for their religious beliefs while at the same time using those beliefs to openly disrespect the law. If it were otherwise, we’d have complete anarchy in this country, with every public servant using their religious beliefs to justify disrespect for the law and engaging in all sorts of discriminatory and bigoted behavior. It’s really that simple.
There’s no doubt there will be many more Kim Davis’s for years to come; just as there were public servants opposed to interracial marriage for years after Loving v Virginia. But eventually, it will be very difficult to find a public servant anywhere who refuses to issue a license for a same-sex marriage. And there may even come a time when officiants of all faiths will be willing to perform the ceremony.