With those words, Davis, a Democrat, joined the long list of religiously motivated conscientious objectors in American history – from both the political left and the right – who have used civil disobedience to defy laws they consider unjust or immoral.
From pacifists refusing combat service to civil rights workers sitting in at lunch counters to pharmacists who will not provide the “morning after pill,” the United States has a storied and contentious history of dissent compelled by moral and religious convictions.
Of course, when conscientious objectors like Davis challenge laws they consider unjust, they must be prepared to pay a price.
Davis’s case is a high-profile example of civil disobedience by public officials opposed to gay marriage that is playing out in other states. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in June upholding same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, some county clerks and other officials still refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Some states, including lawmakers in Kentucky, are considering legislation like the law recently enacted in North Carolina that would permit judges and other public officials to opt out of being involved with same-sex marriage ceremonies – as long as that includes all marriages, as Davis has done. But this arrangement risks offending gay couples that may be denied service – or have difficulty finding service – on what is supposed to the happiest day of their lives.
Utah has a better idea.
In March, the Utah legislature passed compromise legislation that went a long way toward both protecting religious liberty and prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people. One of the law’s key provisions ensures that county clerks’ offices issue marriage licenses.
A clerk may opt out of being involved with a gay marriage if, and only if, other clerks are readily available to issue the license. A clerk who chooses to opt out may not officiate any marriages.
Under this arrangement, gay couples are served (they will not know who, if anyone, in the clerk’s office has opted out) and religious claims of conscience are accommodated.
Replicating the Utah compromise in Kentucky would probably not satisfy Davis.
Not only does Davis refuse to issue licenses to gay couples, she refuses to allow other clerks in her office to do so. If she continues to turn gay couples away, the only recourse is to remove her from office through impeachment.
Protecting religious conscience is a key American principle – but it does not extend to denying gay couples in Rowan County the ability to exercise what the Supreme Court has recognized as a constitutional right.
However, considerable common ground can be found between the opposing points of refusing service to gay couples and coercing all clerks to violate their conscience.
Ensuring that all couples seeking marriage licenses are immediately served while making provision for individual clerks to opt out on religious grounds is a compromise that upholds both marriage equality and liberty of conscience.
The defiant stance of Davis has once again stoked the culture wars. She is mocked by some on one side as a buffoon and bigot – and hailed by some on the other side as the next Rosa Parks.
The challenge for the rest of us (and that, I suspect, is most Americans) is to get beyond the rhetoric and drama and find a way forward that reflects who we are as a people – at least on our best days.
Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Religious Freedom Institute of Newseum Institute.