Kim Davis and Conscientious Objection

Fifty years ago, few establishments welcomed openly gay people with the exception of bars, which police frequently raided, leading of course to the Stonewall riots.
In 2001, a majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage (57% to 35%). Since then, support for same-sex marriage has steadily grown across all divides including gender, race, political affiliation, and religion. Today, a majority of Americans (55%) support same-sex marriage, a 25% increase from just fourteen years ago.

On June 26 of this year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same sex marriage nationwide.

Despite these great social changes, we still have those in our society who are not only against same-sex marriage, but adamantly so. On September 3, only a couple months after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, Kim Davis, a Kentucky clerk, was held in contempt of court for repeatedly refusing to issue same-sex couples marriage licenses and subsequently jailed. Kim Davis, county clerk, refused to do her job. She acted discriminatorily and imposed her own values over the ruling of the Supreme Court. She might be entitled to her beliefs, but she isn’t entitled to not do her job and expect to keep it. It would have made sense to fire her. Jailing her for five days, however, seems a little extreme. What seems even more illogical is that after being released from jail, Davis remains as county clerk and remains refusing to sign same-sex marriage licenses.

The American Civil Liberties Union pressed the charges against Davis requesting a fine to encourage Davis’ adherence to the Supreme Court ruling. However, Judge David L. Bunning, after learning Davis’ supporters were planning on fundraising to pay the fine, decided to penalize Davis with jail time instead, hoping this would provide more incentive for her to adhere to the ruling. On the contrary, Davis did not apologize or agree to adhere to the Supreme Court ruling even after spending five days in jail and her jailing has not only failed to send a message of adherence, but has stirred up a passion for protest.

Others wonder why Davis continues to serve as county clerk even as she continues to refuse to sign same-sex marriage licenses. This is because she would have to be impeached by the state legislature since she holds an elected position. Not even the governor would be able to fire Davis on his own. To remove Davis from her position, the General Assembly would have to call a special session, which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money. Even if a special session were called, there would be no guarantee of Davis’ impeachment. Davis also refuses to quit, asking instead for accommodations to remove her name from the marriage licenses on the basis of religious exemption.

Despite the controversy Davis initially stirred up, the issue had quieted until this past week when Pope Francis visited her. Pope Francis is known for his left-leaning positions on poverty, immigration, the environment, and inequality. However, in his meeting with Davis, he reportedly told her to “stay strong” and thanked her for her courage (The New York Times). Given Pope Francis’ trend for moderation, for preventing extremism and promoting interfaith tolerance, many have interpreted his meeting with Davis as seizing on the issue of conscientious objection rather than making a religious stance on homosexuality.

Although Pope Francis makes an interesting point, it is important to note that neither Christianity nor the label of conscientious objector absolve Davis. Jesus never speaks about homosexuality, God speaks with multiple voices, and the church certainly has support for both sides. Furthermore, the term “conscientious objector” does not mean that Davis’ actions were in any way noble. Conscientious objection comes from the military, referring to a person who refuses enlistment based on moral or religious grounds. We often associate the term with social justice and the civil rights movement, but in its most basic form, conscientious objection refers to a person who objects based on closely held values. In this light, Davis is indeed a conscientious objector as she is objecting to issuing marriage licenses based on her religious convictions. However, by this definition, teachers who refused to admit children of color in the 50s and shooting ranges that refuse to let Muslims participate are also conscientious objectors. In these examples, we can see that conscientious objection is not inherently noble and in fact is often used as an excuse for discriminatory action. If anything, the label of conscientious objector incriminates Davis even more assuredly as it ties her to her actions. She is not a victim, but a conscientious actor. She has made her stance and must face the consequences of her actions whatever they may be. Davis may be entitled to her beliefs, but her beliefs do not entitle her to remain as county clerk without objections or further consequences.

Olivia Ensley


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