Stop me if you've heard this story before: The Supreme Court of the United States rules that same-sex marriage is in fact a right, and a county clerk decides that it's her personal mission to refuse to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Okay, so, you might have heard it a few times, because that's exactly what some county clerks did, but one, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, has taken the situation to baroque new levels by refusing to grant licenses to all applicants, gay or straight or anything else, despite receiving multiple court orders to do so.
She's citing personal religious objections. But look. If you have religious, ethical, or moral objections to a given activity, you shouldn't be employed in a position where you have to engage in that activity. Yet, this situation arises on a really frequent basis in America, and it's deeply perturbing. Particularly high profile cases have come up in the context of pharmacies, where some clerks and staffers refuse to dispense birth control and emergency contraception because it "goes against their beliefs."
These are private employers. What their employees are doing still shouldn't be legal, and they still shouldn't have jobs. But when you get into government employees, you're talking about the issue of public accommodations, and people like this should be fired, full stop, end of game.
Let's say I'm a bus driver and also a disablist jerk, tootling along, doing my bus driver thing. A wheelchair user in my community happens to sue my agency, arguing that she isn't accommodated by bus drivers, who are required to stop for her and assist her with getting on board the bus. The court (correctly) rules that drivers are in fact required to stop for wheelchair users, kneel the bus, put out the ramp, and help people get on board and into the wheelchair spots if necessary.
So I decide to just stop driving buses. Because I have...a religious objection to doing my job?
My agency would be entirely within its rights to fire me, and should in fact fire me, because I'm not doing the job I have been hired and trained to do. This isn't an issue of me choosing not to work in protest of a health and safety violation. I'm not coordinating a labor action with other employees to address problems with working conditions. I'm deciding all on my lonesome that accommodating disabled people is simply beyond the pale and, furthermore, inconveniencing anyone who needs the bus in the process of making my daring political statement.
However, Rowan County doesn't appear to have made any moves to discipline Davis, who has been merrily ensconced in the County Clerk's office — at times actually closing the office — not doing a key component of her job, which is to issue marriage licenses. Courts and a large number of citizens are generally in agreement that she can't act in contempt of the Constitution — the same entity that guarantees her religious freedoms — as well as court orders. Right now, she runs the risk of being fined and penalized, in addition to being liable for litigation costs, and irritatingly, the county, rather than Davis personally, may wind up paying some of these fees — residents are literally paying for their clerk to be a bigot, not just paying in the metaphorical sense of not being able to get married.
A judge already ordered her to suck it up, buttercup, and start issuing marriage licenses. She filed an appeal, and the judge stated that she could wait to comply with the order until a ruling on the appeal, or August 31st, whichever came first. The appeals court issued a ruling on Wednesday, telling her that no, seriously actually you really do have to do your job. She continued to not offer marriage licenses, reaching a standoff point on Friday where she closed the office for a while as everyone wondered what in blazes was going on. Oh, and she's taking it to the Supreme Court, because of course she is, which is going to result in months of delays.
Her attorney — provided by a notoriously right-wing firm, Liberty Counsel — claims that:
The court of appeals did not provide any religious accommodation rights to individuals, which makes little sense because at the end of the day it's individuals that are carrying out the acts of the office. They don't lose their individual constitutional rights just because they are employed in a public office.
Now, let's be clear here: I am an extremely strong proponent of religious freedom. I believe that people of faiths should be able to worship without persecution, discrimination, and abuse. I also believe that employers should not be allowed to discriminate in the case of necessary religious accommodations, such as time off during religious holidays. However, equally so, when religious values conflict with someone's ability to perform a job, that person needs to pick a different career.
There are other employment opportunities available. And much as people sitting in the exit row seats are asked if they are willing and able to assist other passengers in the event of an emergency, people should be asked if they are willing and able to do their jobs during the hiring process. If they are not — or if they later prove to be incapable — they should be encouraged to pick different seats, as they are clearly no longer suited to the position. Needing time off for a religious holiday is not equivalent to, say, refusing to have contact with women other than your wife.
So why hasn't she been fired? Well, it turns out that, much like termites, county officials are extremely difficult to get rid of if they don't want to leave their jobs on their own. In fact, the only way to unseat them is to impeach them, and the legislature may be reluctant to do so both because it's pretty unusual, and because some of the legislature may actually agree with her stance. It's also a huge and expensive hassle to eject someone from a position in county government.
Sadly enough, those of us who think that Davis should be fired may actually want to rethink our own stance on forcibly removing her from office, because if she was successfully impeached, it would be catnip to the right, which wants to play itself as terribly oppressed by the evil pinko commie left. While a firing on its own would result in much beating of drums about persecuted minorities, were she to be impeached or prosecuted, that would escalate things considerably.
Which leaves things at a stalemate. If Davis keeps refusing to comply with court orders, every part of me screams that she should be removed from her position — and I'm deeply furious that she hasn't been removed already. But conversely, if she is removed from her position, it could create a whole new set of problems and she could become a martyr to the cause. Either way, the residents of Rowan County suffer, and her case heartens county clerks in other areas who think that they are personally empowered to interpret law and decide who should and shouldn't be granted a marriage license.
If a county clerk can write her own laws, I guess the rest of us can too. If you'll excuse me, I've got to head out and steal some purses from old ladies, speed, and buy alcohol for minors.
Photos: Steven Damron