Correction appended at bottom
The United States, founded as a secular nation, constitutionally protects freedom of religion, and the corollary of that is that one religion or one sect cannot be privileged above others, or above non-believers. This presents problems to some people.
Kim Davis, the county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, who refuses on the basis of her religious beliefs to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, has been ordered by a federal judge to carry out her sworn duties.
Judge David Bunning wrote, "The state is not asking her to condone same-sex unions on moral or religious grounds, nor is it restricting her from engaging in a variety of religious activities. She is even free to believe that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, as many Americans do. However, her religious convictions cannot excuse her from performing the duties that she took an oath to perform as Rowan County clerk."
Ms. Davis plans to appeal the decision. Though I am not a lawyer and this is only a guess, I imagine that the federal appeals court will show more regard for the Constitution than Ms. Davis has.
In a Facebook discussion today, a fellow editor asks whether there can be some provision to excuse bakers and florists from providing goods and services for thesame-sex unions that they abhor. I asked whether this means that Christian merchants are to be excused from the public-accommodation laws. I suggested that he might explain how a Christian baker's or florist's refusal to serve a gay couple would differ from a white merchant's refusal to serve a black customer.
Meanwhile, in Lincoln County, North Carolina, County Commissioner Carrol Mitchim walked out of a meeting rather than hear a non-Christian invocation. Mitchim, the Lincoln County chairman, had said in interviews in the weeks prior that only Christian prayers would be welcome at his meetings. "I ain't gonna have no new religion or pray to Allah or nothing like that," he had said.
The county board speedily replaced a policy that all faiths were welcome to open their meetings with prayer to a policy ending all religious invocations.*
Being a Christian in a secular society, particularly one that is growing more determinedly secular, presents challenges. The Pew Research Center's report in May, "America's Changing Religious Landscape," found that Christians are declining as a proportion of the population and that the unaffiliated are growing, particularly among the young.
The unaffiliation is not hard to understand. The mainline churches are often dull and namby-pamby. (As I was describing one such congregation to a friend, he asked, "Why are they a church? What is their mission?" I answered, "Their mission is to mean well.") And many of the evangelical churches, which are also now in decline, are just hateful about gay marriage and allied issues, sometimes sounding as repulsed by American society as al-Qaida is.
There's a choice. Christians can, as some appear to be doing, retire to their redoubts, glaring balefully at the world around them and attempting to enlist the state to protect them. That looks to me like a strategy guaranteed to increase the decline.
Or they could engage with the world, as Pope Francis appears to be recommending to Roman Catholics. Let people exercise their secular civil rights. Work on helping to feed and house the poor, heal the sick, comfort the dying, as the Gospels enjoin us. Let something other than resentment mark a Christian.
*The people enacting these freedom-of-religious-conscience laws apparently assume that only Christians will benefit from them. Wait and see how they react if Muslims and Hindus take advantage of their provisions.
The gentleman mentioned in the section above about Facebook exchanges, a reporter, not an editor, tells me that I have mischaracterized his views, and objects strongly to the word abhorrence applied to them. I realize that in writing I conflated him with another gentleman from Facebook exchanges, one given to enlarging on the sinfulness of homosexuality, the judgment to come, and pious expressions of hope that gay people may be delivered by counseling and prayer from their affliction. (I sometimes think that frank, open Westboro Baptist viciousness is preferable to prejudice diluted with condescensoion.)
In any event, I apologize to the gentleman whom I have misrepresented, who hopes that an irenic balance between private convictions and the law, particularly the public-accommodation laws, can be worked out, and on that point we are in agreement.