Rod Dreher has a good post about the martyrdom of Kim Davis. He is concerned about the effect of her case on religious freedom in general. But he’s ignoring the central protection Kentucky itself has instituted to protect religious liberty.
Prof. Eugene Volokh has the best analysis of the actual law, and the Kentucky religious freedom protection statute seems very clear that the state would make a reasonable accommodation for Davis if she were interested in being reasonable. In fact, the religious freedom laws passed by both the state and federal governments in the last two decades, are weighted — sometimes unreasonably (in my view) — in favor of religious freedom. Despite my feelings, that is a policy choice elected officials have made, and it is the law.
Davis’ best argument is that she doesn’t want to have her name on state marriage certificates if they will be issued to same-sex couples, because the use of her name in those circumstances violates her religious beliefs. The statute only requires her beliefs to be sincere, not objectively reasonable or even consistent. Under the Kentucky law, if it is not unduly burdensome on the state to remove her name, she could continue to serve in her job. That would require either reconfiguring how Kentucky marriage certificates look and perhaps having to reprint all of them going forward, or perhaps somehow scratching her name (if not her office title) from them. These options may or may not be reasonable given the specifics of what processes are in place, which ones are required by state statute, etc.
Volokh says this is a “modest” request. That might be true, though “modest” might not be the word I’d use. If one elected official in one Kentucky county can bring lawful marriages in her jurisdiction to a virtual halt because of her religious beliefs, and demands that her view of religion be accommodated countywide, and possibly statewide depending on the statutory rules for marriage forms, that seems to me immodest in the extreme.
Davis’s case is extraordinary because she has insisted that her personal religious belief should govern, not just her own actions, but those of her entire office, including (in her view) all of the people who work for her.
Compare the extent of her preferences to those of Judge Vance Day in Oregon. Judge Day has announced that he will not perform same-sex marriages due to his religious beliefs. Unlike the office of a county clerk, the performance of marriages is entirely discretionary for a judge. In fact, Judge Day specifically told his staff that they should forward any requests for same-sex marriages to other judges who do not share his religious objections. Judge Day has at the very least made it clear that his religious objections are his own, and made an accommodation to the same-sex couples who might have approached his office to make sure that their rights are protected at the same time that his religious beliefs are respected.
Here is another example, one cited by Dreher that works in the opposite direction. Gavin Newsom, as mayor of San Francisco, announced in 2004 that he felt California’s law prohibiting same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, and that henceforth City Hall would be happy to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which is did, to great joy. Dreher calls this “lawlessness,” and implies that those who supported Newsom are hypocrites if they oppose Davis.
Newsom went beyond his authority as mayor, but he was not, as a NYTimes editorial quoted by Dreher suggests, defying a court order. In fact, the California Attorney General challenged the mayor’s political grandstanding, and when the California Supreme Court ruled against Newsom, the marriages ended. Dreher’s comparison of Newsom to Davis would hold only if the mayor had truly disobeyed the court ruling and maybe gone to jail for that.
Moreover, while Newsom was indeed acting (or more accurately overacting) on a moral principle, it was one grounded in the civil law, not God’s. The prior year, the Massachusetts Supreme Court had ruled that the state constitution protected the rights of same-sex couples to get married. While Newsom was in grave error about his own authority, he also knew when the stunt was over.
Davis now has to make that same determination. She can be a martyr for as long as she likes. Kentucky officials can determine whether it makes sense to accommodate her religious beliefs and remove her name from marriage certificates. The question is whether she is going to be reasonable enough to accept the terms she, herself, offered.