Clerks, Marriage and Rights

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, continues to stand firm on her religious principles. She refuses to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. And she’s not alone. There is a former magistrate in North Carolina, a probate judge in Alabama and a clerk in Texas. They hold that as government employees, they should not be required to recognize same-sex marriage because of their religious convictions (NY Times.) In other words, these people believe their religious principles should not cost them  their jobs.

The Catholic Bishops might be right or wrong in their assessment of the Supreme Court decision, calling it “profoundly immoral and unjust.” The Orthodox Union, speaking for Orthodox Jewish congregations, responded to the Supreme Court decision by condemning discrimination against individuals, but stating their position is “emphatic” and “unalterable” in defining marriage “as a relationship between a man and a woman.” And the religious body with which I am affiliated (The United Methodist Church) continues to experience great division on the issue, as evidenced by the rather tortured language in our Book of Discipline and the explanation offered here by Bishop L. Jonathan Holston

Let’s put aside for the moment whatever our opinions might be on same-sex marriage and let’s consider the question of how a civic society can function in a sea of pluralism. We know that religion is to be kept free from government influence. Is the converse true? Should the function of government be kept free from religious influence?

When the public entrusts me with certain responsibilities, at what point are my personal beliefs allowed to interfere with carrying out those responsibilities? Is it incumbent upon me to evaluate the tension between my job and my religion and determine in advance at what point the tension is no longer acceptable? Or is it the government’s responsibility to accommodate my religion?

Let’s consider the situation Ms. Davis is in when issuing marriage licenses. Does her faith have anything to say about the preparedness of a couple prior to being married? Does she interview people to insure their understanding of marriage is consistent with what her religion teaches? I suspect she dispenses marriage licenses to persons who are legally allowed to acquire one. The Christian Testament has some fairly strong statements about divorce; does Ms. Davis ever issue a license to a divorced person? Is she clear that the divorce was obtained for reasons consistent with her understanding of biblical teaching?

Some might try to pitch Ms. Davis’ situation as religious persecution. They would be wrong. Religious persecution occurs when we are prevented from believing and worshiping as we feel called to do. The government is not placing any such restriction on Ms. Davis.

Town and county clerks have a job to do. The Supreme Court of the land has ruled on same-sex marriage. Couples have the right to get married. Just as the government does not dictate how I should worship as a Christian, neither does any religious entity dictate to the government what the laws of the land are. The “separation” has been a tremendous blessing to religion in the form of freedom, tax exemptions, etc. Ms. Davis has the right not to issue marriage licenses, but not as a county clerk. If she insists on exercising that right, she has the responsibility to remove herself from position in which she refuses to do what the job requires. That would be the faithful thing to do.

US Catholic Bishops Statement


Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.