The curious case of Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples raises the issue of how we should view people who claim something about their religion should trump some obligations of their jobs.
Ms. Davis, who reportedly has been married four times, apparently hears the voice of God telling her gay marriage is BAD. Presumably, God has said nothing to her about divorce or serial marriages being BAD, but gay marriage is BAD. One might conclude Ms. Davis is awfully fond of marriage, given her frequent embrace of it, but some marriages just go too far for her.
She was elected County Clerk, so she cannot be fired, but she can be jailed for contempt of court. Contempt of court, as I understand it, does not actually mean you disrespect a judge or have acted contemptuously; it means you have thwarted the will and function of a judge thereby preventing justice from being done. I'm not sure if the clerk thwarted the Supreme Court or some lower court, but off she went to jail. It is not clear whether she was handcuffed, but there are photos of handcuffed wrists attached to newspaper stories about her.
So, two issues: 1. How should government respond when someone refuses to carry out the responsibilities of a job which her bosses or the public expects her to execute? 2. Why are individuals who are clearly neither flight risks nor dangerous handcuffed? Was she strip searched in jail to be sure she was not hiding a dangerous weapon in her vagina with which she might harm her jailers or other prisoners?
With respect to the appropriate response to willful refusal to do some part of the job: If a pharmacist who is a corporate employee says he will not sell Plan B to a woman because his religion tells him abortion is murder, and he believes Plan B to be an abortafacient, we may agree that he might justifiably be fired for failing to fulfill his responsibilities and duties, and if the corporation does not fire him, we might agree action might be taken against the corporation for allowing him to impose his beliefs on others. But suppose the corporation simply does not stock Plan B? Should we consider the reasons for this decision? Suppose the corporation says it is simply not in its financial interest, its business plan or its corporate mission to sell this drug and it reserves the right to make this judgment just as it did when it decided to not stock tobacco products? Suppose the corporation says it decided not not stock Plan B because it considers abortion murder?
The Supreme Court has said the owners of a restaurant chain do not have to pay for health insurance which includes abortion or birth control coverage because they have said this would violate their religious beliefs. So one might conclude, the Supreme Court would allow the corporation to not stock Plan B and the corporation and the pharmacist are simply exercising their first amendment rights.
But a county clerk is a public official. If she is allowed to say she won't issue marriage licenses because it violates her religious beliefs, what about the Lester Maddox redux who says it violates his religious beliefs to allow black children to go to school with white children, to allow blacks to use the same toilets, swimming pools or hotel beds as whites?
If the clerk is an elected official, she may claim she is defending not just her personal beliefs but she is defending the beliefs of the electorate and if they disagree, well then they can vote to remove/impeach.
NPR carried a story today about a group suing a Massachusetts government agency which regulates adoptions and has forbidden prospective parents from adopting if they answer affirmatively the question: "Do you believe corporal punishment is appropriate to discipline children?" These parents assert the Bible endorses corporal punishment for the disciplining of children and this regulation violates their civil rights to be free from government regulating religion.
Not knowing much about the Bible, I Googled and learned, there is something in the Bible for everyone and everything:
Prov 13.24: "He that spareth his rod hate his son: but he tha loveth him chasteneth him betimes diligently."
And here I thought I had lovethed my sons. All of which goes to show, when you hear the word of God, it is a fine and mysterious thing and maybe that's why we need a Constitution.
Doctors have long been able to refuse to learn how to perform abortions , but in that case, there is no requirement for knowing how to do an abortion to be licensed to practice medicine. Oddly, there are state laws which require that all doctors who graduate medical school need to have learned how to deliver a baby--no matter if you are going into dermatology or psychiatry--unless you have delivered 7 babies you cannot be awarded a MD degree in some states. (That made for some eleventh hour dashes to the delivery rooms for some medical students.)
So far, the courts have said you can resign your job, but if you stand in the way of a court order, you are in contempt.
Of course, what the citizenry will say is something else again.
There are times when we applaud an individual for refusing to execute the responsibilities of his office/job. When a soldier refuses to shoot down defenseless civilians at Mai Lai we applaud. When a soldier simply follows orders and shoots down defenseless civilians or gases them in a concentration camp, we insist he ought to have followed a higher authority.
Am I comparing Ms. Davis to the virtuous concentration camp guard who refused to simply go along and just follow orders? There are many differences, but there are some intriguing similarities.