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New Jersey Employment and Civil Rights Trial Lawyer Discusses the Jailing of the “Kentucky Clerk”

On Behalf of | Sep 4, 2015 | Civil Rights |

I know. I hear you. If you’ve read my blogs before, I’m starting to sound like a broken record. I’ve talked — it seems to me endlessly — about the problem we have in America of reconciling a person’s personal religious beliefs with public policy. Frankly, it’s starting to get embarrassing for us. I just returned from a trip overseas and believe me when I tell you, America’s obsession with religious fundamentalists calling the political shots is not well thought of.

The problem we’ve got is that we were founded by religious extremists. I don’t mean that disparagingly. I mean, quite literally, the “Puritans” who founded the first colonies on the upper east coast of our country were ejected from England for having extreme religious views (at least as compared to the typical religious views of the day). To use a modern turn of phrase, the Puritans were “right wing religious conservatives.”

I get that most people identify, at least minimally, as religious in some way. Yet most people, perhaps because they remember their “Schoolhouse Rock” from the ’70’s, or they remember their civics class from Junior High School, understand the difference between their personal religious beliefs on the one hand, and the functioning of public policy and government, on the other 

What we want in the United States — at least what we say we want in our Constitution — is a secular government that does not permit the “establishment” by the government of a particular set of religious beliefs. Bluntly, nobody possessing any faith should be comfortable with the idea of government validating the views of one particular faith. Sure, today, that faith that the government seems to back more than any other might be your own, and it might be the faith embraced by “most,” but the worm turns, my friends. In time — maybe not in your lifetime but perhaps in the lifetime of your children or your children’s children — you’ll find that the government you permitted to be a cheerleader for your own religious beliefs has now become a cheerleader for someone else’s; and you helped establish the precedent for the new American theocracy.

You see why we don’t want that to happen, ever?

So let’s assume you’re one of the “people of the book,” meaning a Christian, Jewish or Muslim person. Perhaps, as a consequence of your particular interpretation of your holy book, you believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Okay, that’s fine. Believe it. Say it at cocktail parties. Say it on your blog. Say it to your friends, your neighbors and your family.

But understand that at a certain point, your ability to say it, especially in a way that impacts the rights of others who don’t share your beliefs, has got to end.

Where does it end? In schools. In the workplace. Especially, in government offices. When you work for government, you’re allowed to possess beliefs, but you can’t push those beliefs on others, especially in a setting where those others have no choice but to interact with you. That’s why we have limits on places like work and school, where people essentially have to be. When you work for the government, you speak for the government. And you have to speak secularly, not religiously. If you don’t like it, find another job.

Kim Davis, from Rowan County, Kentucky, is a Christian “believer.” Now, I’m not sure about the sincerity of her faith, because she’s been married four times, so clearly, she doesn’t take marriage that seriously. But anyway, Kim was just put in jail by a Federal Judge for disobeying the law of the land, as most recently expressed by the United States Supreme Court’s Opinion supporting the right of same sex couples to marry throughout the United States. A few days ago, a YouTube video went viral where Ms. Davis was refusing to issue a marriage license to a same sex couple. She did this based on her personal religious beliefs notwithstanding the fact that she had a public job to do for which she was paid by public dollars.

Kim thinks that she had a “right” to refuse to issue the license. Kim’s supporters on Social Media and elsewhere think the same.

They’re all wrong.

I’m always amazed at how ignorant the American public is of the law and the legal system, and yet how comfortable the American public feels in criticizing what they don’t understand. The determination of whether someone possesses a “right” to do or not do a thing is never as simple as people think it is.

As we’ve said above, Kim has the right to believe anything she likes; but once she reports at 9:00 a.m. to a secular government job, and renders a service from that secular government office, she has an obligation to obey the law of the land in the rendering of that service. Her beliefs have nothing whatsoever to do with her obligation to render that service neutrally and in accordance with the law.

She ignorantly refused to do that and now she’s in jail as a result of an Order from Judge David L. Bunting of the United States District Court. Good for him. Let’s have no nonsense about religious liberty on a personal level being conflated with one’s job as a public official.

As the Judge stated, you can’t give people “the opportunity to choose which orders they follow.”

No one is above the law. The law must be secular. I’ve spoken with conscientious and intelligent and educated believing Christians who are appalled that Kim Davis presumes to speak for them. Some of them believe that same sex marriage is against the law of God but respect that it’s now the law of the land. Some of them believe that it’s no one’s business, including that of any church, to tell people whom they can and cannot marry. The very fact that there’s such debate among those people with whom I’ve spoken underlines why the “law of the land” must be respected by all members of the civil service.

Now. If you don’t agree, notwithstanding the law, then consider the following:

Assume that it’s 50 years from now; you’re gone, but your kids and grandkids are alive and well.

Assume that, because you were ok with establishing “bible law” as public policy when you were around, others 50 years from now thought it’d be great to establish religious law in public policy and service, too.

Except that this time, the religion in dominance isn’t yours anymore; nor that of your descendants. They’re now in the minority.

Their house is on fire. They’re going to die unless the first responders save them.

But the first responders object to saving “heretics.”

After all, they’re expressing their “religious rights,” aren’t they?

You ok with that?

I didn’t think so.