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Religious Beliefs vs. Elected Duty: Who Wins?

This summer, the Supreme Court ruling regarding same-sex marriage was immediately put to the test by Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis. Hours after the release of the ruling, Davis began refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, based on her religious beliefs and values. In a statement, Davis said she could not in good conscience supply these marriage licenses. After multiple warnings from the court for Davis to resume issuing licenses, Davis was jailed for contempt of the court.

Voices of two opinions rose up-some in support of Davis as a sort of martyr, and others outraged at her stance. Questions regarding religious equality versus the new ruling for marriage equality also have come to the forefront. Was the government infringing on Davis’s right to exercise her own religious doctrine? As an employee of the government, Davis’s job description, like others, will infringe on First Amendment rights. However, Davis’ lawyer stated the government should make reasonable accommodations for her religious beliefs. Judge Bunning, in ordering Davis to resume issuing licenses, said her refusal “promotes her own religious convictions at the expense of others.”

Some comparisons between Davis’s office and “sanctuary cities” have been made. A sanctuary city is a jurisdiction where local officials refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. So is Davis only doing the same in her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses? Not exactly- while Davis acts in direct defiance of a federal law, sanctuary cities do not. Sanctuary cities exist on the idea that the federal government is free to implement any federal policy, but cannot “commandeer” a local or state government into implementation (a principle established in the case Printz v. United States, which cited the value the U.S. places on dual sovereignty). But, because Kim Davis received orders from a lower court, she is a clerk performing a state and locally governed program, as well as federal policy.

Some solutions to this issue have included removing the clerk name at the top of the license, as a main piece of Davis’s concern is having her name on an official document sponsoring something against her beliefs. Another similar suggestion would entail the state, not the county, issuing licenses. Davis was jailed for five days, until the court decided whether or not to charge her with contempt of the court. Davis was released; her deputy clerks had resumed issuance after her jailing, so the judge allowed her to be released, warning she not interfere with the work of clerks “directly or indirectly” as they issued licenses to those legally eligible. Davis remained at home to rest and be with her family following her incarceration, returning to work after a few days.

Kim Davis and her vocal resistance stand to remind us of one’s right to challenge the government and stand up for one’s beliefs. Yet this country was built on the separation of church and state, which brings up an entirely new set of arguments. If you or a loved one are facing charges or feel your civil rights are being violated, call us at 714-713-4525 for a free case review.

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