Turning on the news these past few weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking America had gained two new celebrities in Kim Davis and Charee Stanley.
Davis, the clerk of Rowan County, Ky., gained notoriety after refusing to allow any couples to obtain marriage licenses, a position stemming from her Apostolic Christian beliefs opposing same-sex marriage. Stanley, a former flight attendant for ExpressJet and a recent convert to Islam, was suspended without pay after the airline first gave — and then took away — an exemption that allowed her to refuse to serve alcohol to passengers on flights, in accordance with her beliefs.
Their stories are similar, in that both women asked to avoid certain duties associated with their jobs, citing religious beliefs. But the reaction and level of support, particularly among conservative circles, has largely favored Davis. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (R.), a former Baptist minister, has rallied to Davis’ side, warning that overreach from an activist Supreme Court is “the most important issue” in the 2016 election, and claiming that Davis was jailed for five days due to her religious beliefs.
But local religious leaders and prominent members of faith communities aren’t quite buying into Huckabee’s persecution complex.
The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Washington National Cathedral, believes Davis’ complaints that her religious liberties are being violated are “bogus.” Davis has tried to halt the issuance of licenses, saying that even if she does not issue them herself, including her name and title on the form somehow constitutes an endorsement of same-sex marriage that she cannot abide.
“Kim Davis is certainly is within her right to believe that same-sex marriage is not Biblical,” says Hall. “What she’s not free to do is to not do her job. If she really feels that her conscience is dictating her to not do this, then he needs to resign her job.
“If I’m a vegan, and I say, ‘I’m not going to give out hunting licenses because I’m totally averse to killing and I am opposed to the current interpretation of the 2nd Amendment,’ would I be within my rights to refuse to give out hunting licenses? Of course not, People would laugh me out of the building if I said that.”
Hall says there is a long tradition within many faiths of violating the law in order to follow one’s conscience, citing the imprisonment of conscientious objectors during World War II and Jehovah’s Witnesses who failed to register for the draft in the days of the Vietnam War. But, he adds, religion does not constitute a carte blanche that immunizes someone from penalties.
“The whole conscience argument from Martin Luther King onward has been, ‘I’m going to follow my conscience, and if my conscience makes me break the law, I have to face the consequences,'” says Hall. “But now, we have a whole class of people who want to break the law, but don’t want to face the consequences.”
Rev. Linda Olson Peebles, of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, says that despite outcry from conservatives about alleged persecution, it has actually been the more progressive denominations and branches within faiths who have been marginalized or silenced.
“I am a huge supporter of the right of each person to believe what they believe and to practice their own faith,” she says. “But a pluralistic society requires that we come to commonly held agreements, which are called laws.”
Peebles also distinguishes between Kim Davis — who should resign if she won’t issue marriage licenses — and a more reasonable religious accommodation, such as allowing a Muslim woman to wear religious headgear and cover her hair on the job, noting that the latter is not denying a service to anyone.
“[A person] must either accept the job to serve those people, or not,” says Peebles. “They’re not required to have that job; they’re required to obey the law if they’re going to have the job.”
That sentiment is echoed by Jillian Perry, the first openly LGBT president of Congregation Ner Shalom, a Reform Jewish temple in Woodbridge, Va.
“By encouraging her deputies to not issue marriage licenses, [Davis is] encouraging them to break the law,” Perry says. “That’s not what she was elected for, so if she can’t do her job, she needs to step down. The reaction I’ve gotten from most of my congregants has been the same…. I almost think it would be a bigger testament to God to step down from your position than to get in the way of somebody’s personal rights.”
When asked about Charee Stanley, Perry compared it to a Jewish deli worker at a local Harris Teeter store who objected to slicing ham, saying it could be reasonable to make an accommodation so one of his co-workers could serve the ham instead, just like Stanley’s co-workers agreed to serve alcohol when she could not. She said another example of a “reasonable accommodation” in Judaism would be allowing a man to wear a yarmulke in his place of business, as it doesn’t create a significant burden on anyone.
Rev. Jill McCrory, of Twinbrook Baptist Church, notes that some religious accommodations, such as allowing an employee to wear a cross or a headdress in accordance with their beliefs, have always been seen as reasonable. But she, like other religious leaders, notes that there is a difference between one’s beliefs and imposing them on others through the government.
“We do not live in a church-run government,” she says. “This is why we’re not running our country according to various interpretations of people’s faith. I don’t agree with my conservative brothers and sisters, but I’m not going to refuse to do something for them. But it’s going to get pretty nasty if we start accommodating for everyone’s position. And we can’t just choose one interpretation or one faith on everyone.
“Baptists, especially, live and breathe on soul freedom and the freedom of the congregation,” McCrory continues. “That’s why we don’t have one Baptist entity. Contrary to popular opinion, there is more than just the Southern Baptist Convention.”
But McCrory also sees Davis and Stanley’s situations as issues pertaining to employment law, and not necessarily religious freedom. If both knew what the job was supposed to — or might one day — entail, and they promised to do that job, then they should not be excused for refusing to carry out their duties.
McCrory also rejects the idea, floated by conservative activists and politicians like Huckabee, that the freedom of speech of religious conservatives is somehow under attack.
“It’s complete hyperbole. Look at all the speech we’ve had on marriage equality, on both sides,” she says. “People haven’t been shut down from speaking, what they’ve been shut down for is not following the law.”
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