Man’s Law or God’s Law? Americans Debate Religion in Government
Hundreds of supporters cheered when a local government official, Kim Davis, was released from jail Tuesday. She smiled and appeared to cry.
“I just want to give God the glory."
Ms. Davis is a clerk who works in a small-town government office in Kentcky that issues marriage licenses. She has declared that she will not sign licenses for marriages between people of the same gender.
That is a violation of U.S. law.
Ms. Davis has become a celebrity at the center of the debate in the U.S. about religion freedom and civil liberties. She says her religion – she is an Apostolic Christian -- disagrees with same-sex marriage.
Her job in a secular government includes signing licenses that permit eligible couples to marry. Since June, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal across the country, Ms. Davis has refused to sign marriage licenses for anyone. Her refusal is a protest against gay marriage.
Kim Davis and religious freedom
Supporters say Ms. Davis is acting on her First Amendment rights. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Linda Przybyszewski is a history professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The university was founded by a sect of Catholics focused on education and research. She says Americans’ understanding of religious freedom has changed since the First Amendment was approved in 1791.
In the 18th century, Ms. Przybyszewski says, many state judges supported the idea that laws should promote morality.
“And in order to do that amongst your people, you need religious faith. And to their minds, almost all the time, it’s Christianity, and it’s Protestantism.”
But in the past 100 years, federal courts have heard more and more cases about whether states violate citizen’s religious liberties. For example, Ms. Przybyszewski says, Jews objected to state laws requiring them to close their stores on Sunday. Or Catholics objected to laws requiring them to read a Protestant version of the Bible.
Over time, judges in the late 19th and early 20th centuries said some of the issues needed to be confronted. They had to judge how to balance how religion was practiced in a secular nation.
Ms. Przybyszewski notes that religious beliefs and political issues have clashed many times in history. Slavery and marriage have been persistent issues. These disputes are part of a society that includes people of many faiths, she says. At the same time, she says, the government must afford all its citizens equal rights.
Josh Earnest is a spokesperson for President Barack Obama. He spoke to reporters about this issue:
"...every elected official in this country is -- is subject to the rule of law, and that is a founding principle of our democracy."
In other words, says Mr. Earnest, Americans may not choose which laws to follow.
Kim Davis and the law
The federal judge who ruled on Ms. Davis’ case, David Bunning, says she is required to follow the law – including the law that permits gay marriage.
In addition, the judge points out he, like Ms. Davis, is a government official. He says his promise to serve the public means he cannot permit his personal beliefs to interfere with his job.
Protesters also note that Ms. Davis has been married four times. Her personal history conflicts with the Apostolic Christian belief that marriage is only between one man and one woman.
Ms. Davis, who is 49 years old, says she became an Apostolic Christian four years ago. She worked in the Rowan County clerk’s office for 27 years and was elected county clerk last November.
Ms. Davis said God’s law conflicts with her job.
“You can’t be separated from something that’s in your heart and in your soul,” she told the judge. Ms. Davis, who earns about $80,000 a year as an elected official, says she plans to return to work in a few days.
Kim Davis and politics
Many Republican politicians have opinions on Ms. Davis and her case. When she left the jail Tuesday, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee stood at Ms. Davis’ side. Another Republican presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, said he was planning to visit Ms. Davis in jail.
Both Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Cruz identify themselves with evangelical Christianity, which is similar to Apostolic Christianity. They believe that the Christian Bible is God’s word, and that people can be “born again” and go to heaven if they accept God’s teaching.
Evangelical Christians also often talk publicly, or proselytize, about their Christian beliefs.
A study in May 2015 by the Pew Research Center found that about 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian. That number of Christians has dropped eight points since 2007. About 25 percent of Christians in the U.S. are evangelical, the study said.
Six percent practice religions other than Christianity, and 23 percent do not have a connection to any organized religion.
Judge David Bunning released Ms. Davis from jail after less than a week. Other court clerks in Ms. Davis’ office are signing marriage licenses. Judge Bunning says Ms. Davis may not block marriage licenses.
Ms. Davis’ lawyers are asking for her to be able to continue her job, without approving any marriage licenses. They do not want her name on any official document that permits same-sex couples to get married.
The governor says only the legislature can make that decision. The legislature meets next in January 2016.
I’m Anne Ball.