Several years ago, National Public Radio aired a short story about a master chef who worked at a five-star restaurant in New York. Now a chef has to taste many of the items he prepares to make sure that they're up to his standards. But this chef had a problem. He was an Orthodox Jew, and the restaurant's menu included non-Kosher items.
The chef consulted with his Rabbi: Should he leave his prestigious, well-paid job or break his religion's commandment? The Rabbi pored over the problem and found an answer. "Your passion is being a chef. According to scripture, you should do your work with all your might, which I interpret as doing what the job requires. You are permitted to taste the non-Kosher items you prepare."
By 2014, 35 states and the District of Columbia allowed gay couples to marry. Any objective observer would probably reach the conclusion that public opinion and the force of law had made it clear this right would be granted throughout the country. Anyone running for public office had to know that this was so.
So when Kim Davis stood for election as county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, she knew it would only be a matter of time before a gay couple appeared before her. When the Supreme Court announced its ruling, no compelling state interest is served by banning gays from being legally married, Davis took a different view of things. She decided that her religious beliefs superseded the laws she had sworn to uphold.
Between June and mid-August, Davis' opposition to gay marriage had been rebuffed by judge David Bunning, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals had ordered Davis to issue marriage licenses, and the full Supreme Court declined to hear her case. Last Thursday, with all of her legal options exhausted, Davis continued to defy the courts, leaving Judge Bunning no option but to hold her in contempt.
This happened after she rejected a compromise that the gay license-seekers had offered, to allow deputy clerks to issue licensees without her endorsement.
Carroll County Daily Headlines
As Davis has received financial contributions to aid in her defense, Bunning determined that fining her would have no effect on her behavior, so he ordered her held in jail. Even granting that Davis' beliefs are sincere and deeply held, her actions as county clerk are a naked attempt to use her elective office to compel others, whose differing religious beliefs are equally as sincere as hers, to act according to her church's principles.
This is precisely the definition of establishment of religion.
Throughout the entire two-month process, Davis argued that her religious beliefs were being infringed on, but how? Mrs. Davis' church is not under any obligations to perform gay marriages, so she won't be compelled to witness or participate in one unwillingly. Her right to express her religious views has not been restricted. She may decry homosexuality on street corners, in letters to the editor, or on talk radio. She may vote for candidates based on their support of her position.
What she may not do is to impose her religious views on others in executing the duties of her public position as an agent of a branch of government. The courts have demanded that she do nothing more than fulfill the obligations for which she volunteered and to uphold the laws she swore to uphold. Whether or not she approves of the law is not germane to those obligations.
Judge Bunning saw the perilous path Davis wants to walk: "Our form of government will not survive unless we, as a society, agree to respect the Supreme Court's decisions, regardless of our personal opinions. Personal opinions, including my own, are not relevant to today. The idea of natural law superseding this court's authority would be a dangerous precedent indeed."
That chef was willing to give up a career to adhere to his religion's precepts. Kim Davis would be a better spokesperson for her beliefs were she to follow his example.
Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org