Many people are following with great interest the storyline about Kim Davis, who is the Rowan County Kentucky County Clerk who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples based upon her personal religious objection to same sex marriage. In the interest of trying to appear evenhanded, she has also refused to issue marriage licenses to any other couple, pending resolution of her personal “dispute.”
In a landmark ruling issued in June, the US Supreme Court declared that same-sex couples are entitled to enter lawfully recognized marriages, and that ruling was the final word on this subject, consistent with our system of government.
Recall from civic class that the legislature, (Congress of State legislatures) being the people’s representatives, pass laws that they consider beneficial to the common good; the Executive branch (the president, governor, and most divisions of government) enforce the laws as passed, and the Judiciary (US Supreme Court, Federal and state courts) interpret the laws to define ambiguities, clarify meaning, and to ensure that they comport with the requirements of our constitutions (both Federal and State).
Absent further response from Congress, the orders of the US Supreme Court are the final law of the land, and must be obeyed by all citizens and lower echelons of government, regardless of individual or collective opposition to those rulings. This is known as “respect for the rule of law”, and is a linchpin of our three part system of government. Those protesters were claiming that the Supreme Court does not make law really need to harken back to civic class (or maybe enroll in one).
Although our Constitution provides a long recognized and protected right to hold and follow religious beliefs, the right to practice and implement one’s religion is not absolute, and has historically been subject to legitimate government regulation.
For example, some Native American Indian religions have been prevented from allowing children to handle snakes as part of their religious observances. Likewise, other religions believe in ingesting hallucinogenic drugs like peyote or using marijuana as part of their religious practice. Some religions prohibit the payment of income taxes to the government, but are not allowed to do so. Others advocate polygamy, or intolerance of women’s equality, other races, religions and beliefs. Others object to participating in wars. Others are adamantly opposed to abortion and reproductive rights. Many encourage gender, racial or other discrimination, all in the name of religion.
Those practices, however, run contrary to the existing laws of the nation, and are generally not permitted. So while the right to believe is absolute, the ability to practice and implement (or impose one’s belief upon others) is not absolute. And that is the disconnect here.
If you think about it for a while, this only makes sense. We are a nation of over 300 million individuals, many of whom hold legitimate and deep-seated religious beliefs that are contrary to the beliefs of others, or contrary to the beliefs of those who do not practice or follow any organized religion.
So this sometimes significant tension, while at times seeming to be contradictory, allows for personal freedom of belief, unrestricted by government imposed beliefs or mandated philosophies. It is the very essence of what makes us a truly free society, and must at all times be respected.
But the rulings of the properly conducted judicial proceedings must always be given respect by all members of our society. If we were to allow elected officials, police officers and other governmental bureaucrats, under the guise of a personally held religious belief, however sincere, to simply ignore these laws we would have absolute chaos and not be able to function together as a nation.
If Ms. Davis was employed in the private sector, her refusal to complete her legitimately assigned tasks from her employer would likely result in her swift dismissal.
She voluntarily thrust herself into the public domain by running for office, and must accept the responsibilities of evenhanded and consistent administration of the laws that govern whether she likes or believes in them or not.
Lastly what if an elected official who was a Quaker refused to issue gun permits based upon their pacifist theology? I strongly suspect we would not be having anything approaching this level of discourse based upon the right to practice “sincerely held religious beliefs.” More on that later.