If only we could travel forward in time, we would know by now whether Kim Davis was a catalyst for a major movement in America or simply a footnote in the long story of how same-sex marriage came to be legal and accepted.
Mrs. Davis is the Rowan County, Ky., clerk whose refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — to any couples, for that matter, as evidence she did not discriminate — led to her short stay in jail for contempt of court. She said her opposition to same-sex marriage is due to her Apostolic Christian beliefs.
At her release she was greeted by her third husband (who is actually both her second and fourth husbands), a joyful crowd, and GOP presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee led the pro-Davis rally by warning against attempts to “criminalize Christianity” and criticizing the “five unelected lawyers” — otherwise known as the majority of justices of the U.S. Supreme Court — who held in June that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage.
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Since then, most of us have shuffled ourselves into one of two opposing schools of thought.
School No. 1 holds that Davis — who reportedly had some kind of an audience with Pope Francis during his visit to Washington D.C. — has a deep and sincere religious belief that same-sex marriage is prohibited by God’s law and that she cannot, in good conscience, issue licenses for something so wrong.
School No. 2 holds that Davis, whatever her personal religious beliefs, swore an oath of office to uphold the laws and that the highest court in the nation has determined what the law is with regard to same-sex marriage.
There are, of course, a couple of simple solutions. Davis can resign, or she can let her deputies issue the licenses. My guess is that at this point, whatever her own inclinations, she is being propelled by her supporters into becoming the poster child for the anti-same-sex marriage cohort or the pro-religious-liberty cohort.
There’s a slippery slope here.
Obviously a nation is easier to govern when there’s a certain homogeneity of ethnic, religious, and cultural qualities. In the U.S., we not only lack that homogeneity, we tend to divide ourselves into niches: Protestant or Catholic, African-American or Irish-American, top 1 percent or everybody else, and so on. We may be the melting pot, but our ingredients don’t always blend well.
But there may be more to this. Recently, writing in the New York Times, columnist David Brooks used the term “expressive individualism” to describe a cultural phenomenon in which “individual authenticity is the supreme value,” as opposed to the more traditional values of compromise and coalition-building. He was focusing on the vagaries of this year’s crop of front-running GOP candidates, but the term could also apply to someone who, like Davis, holds her personal beliefs to be more binding than compliance with statutes and court decisions.
What happens when we all express our individualism? We sort of do that already through our clothing choices, food preferences, religious affiliation, political ties and the like. And we do recognize personal religious preferences in some areas — for example, exemptions from vaccination requirements or providing alternative services for conscientious objectors.
Still, we are — or should be — bound together by our tacit understanding that laws apply equally to all of us, regardless of our individual philosophies.
Think about the daily challenge of ordinary life if private beliefs are paramount in the public marketplace. What about the Jewish grocery clerk who won’t ring up a ham? Or the fundamentalist pharmacy technician who won’t fill prescriptions for birth control? Or the maître d’ who won’t seat a mixed-raced couple because his religion opposes marriages between races?
Or what if a county clerk deeply opposed to divorce on religious grounds had decided not to grant Davis a license to wed after her first marriage?
This sad tale is not over by a long shot. Yet even at this early stage it should be warning for those who think private principles should trump public law: Be careful what you wish for.
Lindy High, of Boise, is a retired Idaho state employee who worked for elected officials of both parties.