Rowan County, KY clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples raises a perennial but easily answered question about violating religious conscience as a grounds for refusing to carry out any of the duties of an elected or appointed public official.
When a person accepts the responsibility of performing a public civil function, that person also accepts the duty to society to perform that function in accordance with the law. If a person has a sincere religiously grounded moral objection to a legal requirement of their civil function, they are not free to simply not follow the law on the grounds of their belief. In the case of Ms Davis, she can either perform the function of county clerk as defined by the law or, if doing so offends her conscience, resign from her public position or delegate the offending aspect of her function to another official in her office.
Religious freedom is a civil right as is the right to marry whom one chooses. One right does not trump the other. Ms Davis’ is completely free to believe what she wants. She can also take whatever position she chooses on moral issues and participate in the public debate of those issues. She is, however, not free to violate the civil rights of others.
The law cannot require Ms. Davis to hold or abandon her religious belief but the law can require the county clerk of Rowan County not to violate the civil rights of its citizens and to provide all of the services of that office. If Ms Davis cannot perform her function because of her adherence to belief, it is her belief which ethically precludes her from serving her civil function as county clerk.
Consider Ms Davis’ case in light of the role of military chaplain. The role of military chaplain requires that clergy who accept that role be ready and able to provide chaplain services inter-denominationally without attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity or Catholics to some other denomination. Clergy whose belief structure requires them to proselytize cannot serve as military chaplains because they cannot fulfill all of the requirements of that office. Consequently, only clergy who can function inter-religiously and respect the belief structures of all service members are admitted to chaplaincy in the military.
Some may object that we make exceptions for conscientious objectors so why not Ms. Davis or any other public office holder. Individuals who seek exemption from combat roles for religious reasons receive that exemption as individual citizens not public office holders. Respect for religious conscience and a commitment to religious freedom ensures that citizens are not forced to fill roles in society to which they morally object. Ms. Davis, the individual citizen, cannot be forced to serve as county clerk because providing all of the services of that office would violate her conscience. However, Ms Davis, the sitting county clerk of Rowan County, no matter what her personal religious convictions, must respect the civil rights of all.
Her best and most moral course of action, given her beliefs, is to exercise her religious freedom and resign her office rather than claim a specious religious right to selectively violate the civil rights of others.