Thursday, September 3, 2015

Religious Freedoms

The recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage, or more precisely, the recent Supreme Court decision which ruled that denying the opportunity to marry violated the Constitution of the United States, has prompted a backlash of Americans claiming that their religious freedom is being denied.  We witnessed this with the Hobby Lobby case whereby the Court granted religious freedom protection to the company, allowing its owners to be exempted from the requirement in the Affordable Care Act which provided for access to and payment for contraception.  As I have mentioned before, the Roberts Court has made some surprising decisions, some which inspired the ire of those advocating a liberal perspective, some the conservative viewpoint.  I would prefer that they stick to considerations that focus on individuals, and not have crossed the line of elevating a corporation to the status of an individual, but at least some of the decisions used logic outside the realm of religious bias.

A few days ago, the Court refused to hear the case of Kim Davis, a Kentucky court clerk who is refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay couples because it goes against her religious teachings.  Again, it seems that the Court understands that Ms Davis has every right to her opinion, can certainly choose not to marry someone of the same gender, but cannot, as it is her duty as county clerk, decide who can get married and who can't.  At this point, she is granting no licenses to anyone, straight or gay.  I am not sure how long she intends to refuse to do this function of her job, how long the citizens of her county will allow her to deny their right to marry, or how long other public servants of Kentucky, state reps, governor, etc, will allow her to decide which public functions she will execute and which she will not, but from what I have heard, as an elected public official, she cannot be fired.  Impeached, perhaps but that could take a while since the Kentucky legislature doesn't meet again until next year.  Recalled, maybe, except that would require a special election and certainly take months to organize. 

My hope is that someone will offer Ms Davis an accommodation.  (I don't believe she has asked for one, currently standing firm that it is her right to decide who can marry).  This accommodation could take the form of an alternate granting marriage licenses.  Obviously someone legally able to do so, but someone, perhaps court or governor appointed who can grant the licenses while she performs the other duties of her office.  I would like this accommodation to include the stipulation that she not run for office again, but if that sounds too draconian, perhaps the additional cost of this alternate clerk can be passed along to the tax payers of the county who can then decide if they wish to pay for her religious freedom, or elect someone else the next time.     

In one of the articles I read about Davis, a supporter claimed that they (meaning gay people) want Davis and those agreeing with her to understand and accept their beliefs, but don't accept the religious beliefs of those opposing gay marriage.  I guess if the situation were reversed, and gay people were pushing for laws that denied marriage equality to heterosexuals, this supported might have a point.  But the fact is, those opposing gay marriage aren't asking for the rest of us to respect their beliefs, they are asking us to not exercise our freedom to marry who we love because it offends them.  Oh, and because their god, the highest authority as Davis likes to say, is also against it.

Obviously, we can debate whether God will send all gay people and those who participate in their marriages to hell or not.  We can debate whether gay people are just as much God's creatures as heterosexual people because they are born that way.  We can even debate whether a person living in America, land of the free, has the right to any lifestyle choice that makes them happy, as long as that choice doesn't interfere with someone else's lifestyle choice.  What should not be debated however,  is that the religious beliefs of one group of people, even if that group of people represent the majority of the population, should dictate the opportunity for a minority of the population (in this case 2-4%) to fall in love and get married.  It is a freedom that we sing about when we praise the benefits of life in America, a freedom that we send our young people to war to fight and die for, a freedom that should be sacrosanct in a land that is filled with radio and TV pundits who daily call our country the greatest history has ever seen.  Fortunately, at every legal level, Ms Davis has lost her case and has been ordered to issue licenses.   Not because she is being denied her religious freedom, but because her rights do not supercede the rights of others, especially since she is a representative of the government, not a deacon at her local church. 

I heard a lawyer on the radio comment on this case by citing her own personal situation.  She is against the death penalty, and so will not run for any type of office, or take on any type of case whereby she would have to recommend the death penalty as she knows she could not, in good conscience, make such a recommendation.  Yes, a lawyer with a conscience!!  (I apologize to those lawyers who might read this, as it is not fair to lump you all into the same category as ambulance chasers or hit men defenders or corporate lawyers who stretch out liability cases to the point where wronged individuals can't afford to continue the battle).  

Did Ms Davis know she might one day be tasked with granting a license to a gay couple?  Since she was just elected within the past year and it was no secret that the Supreme Court would soon rule on gay marriage, one might say yes.  Perhaps then she should not have run for county clerk.  I imagine that when she took office, and was sworn in, she was asked if she would perform all her duties, not all those duties that conform to her religious beliefs.  In the future, should all public servants be asked during the election cycle if they would serve all those who elect them or only those whose religious beliefs are similar?  Only support the laws of the Constitution that are in accordance with their religion?

It is common practice today to quote a founding father when one wants to make a point.  Perhaps surprising to some, that is quite easy to do because this amazing group of men advocated viewpoints that ranged all over the political spectrum.  For instance, it is easy to find great quotes from the founders to back either a belief in a strong federal government or more broad based states rights as this was a hotly debated topic amongst them.  As for religion, while most were from a Christian background, they have routinely been referred to as Deists, meaning they believed that the universe had a creator.  I like to think of them as more spiritual than religious, because we must remember that these were the elite of the time, businessmen, land owners, educated and/or well read.  Their cause was as much economic as political, but for good measure they realized that it was important to have an amendment to the Constitution, the Establishment Clause, that prevented the government from both establishing a state religion (like they had in England at the time) and, just as importantly, favoring one religion over an another.   It appears that Davis and her supporters would prefer that their religion be granted such favorite status.

When I encounter someone of that thinking, I like to ask them if, by showing preferential treatment, one religion over another, wouldn't that be the same as denying someone their freedom of religion?  The beauty of government neutrality is that Americans can pursue their faith without fear of being arrested.  (Of course, I have heard some say that we shouldn't allow Muslims their religion because it is anti-American or a bastion for terrorists so clearly those people do not believe in the Constitution or Bill of Rights).   I also like to ask them if they would allow a town in America with a majority of people who practice Buddhism the right to "vote" for a referendum or pass a law that prohibits all other houses of worship.  Most of course, say no, this is America, yet some would still deny Muslims their religion when presented with these two scenarios.  Religious belief can sometimes be a very blinding force to what is right.

The right to practice your religion is an important part of our democracy, our rights and our freedoms.  But with great rights, come great responsibilities.  That is why our system of government and our way of life can be so difficult and why our politics so rancorous.  It isn't easy.  But its rewards are awesome.

Let's hope that Kim Davis and those that will follow her by challenging the legality of gay marriage, are able to someday distinguish between a nation of laws, the nature of religion, and the importance of a separation between the two so that all Americans are granted the opportunity to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 



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