Rowan County, Ken. Clerk Kim Davis has something in common with the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
As clerk, Davis has been refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex marriages, defying federal law. She has said repeatedly her religious convictions will not allow her in good conscience to issue such licenses because God and the Bible define marriage as between a man and woman only. In defying the law, Davis has become a hero to those opposed to the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. She has also become a martyr of sorts for those who are part of a backlash movement against any rights for gays, period.
Wallace, on a June day in 1963, stood in front of a door at the University of Alabama, trying to block the enrollment of two black students into the all-white school. He also tried to block four black children from entering all-white elementary schools. He was defying federal orders, thumbing his nose at civil-rights laws and in the process becoming a hero to diehard segregationists and to the furious backlash against black rights in the Jim Crow South.
Why are Wallace and Davis similar? Because both defied the law. And both became viewed as polarizing symbols in two movements, both involving civil-rights issues – one regarding blacks, the other regarding gays. Wallace was lionized by many as a hero, reviled by many as a villain. It’s the same with Davis.
Davis is not alone in her stand against same-sex marriage. Other clerks in other states – Alabama and Texas, to name two – have also balked at issuing such licenses. And others, such as business owners, have refused to accommodate requests from same-sex couples for wedding services, such as wedding cakes. All of these people, citing deeply held religious convictions, say they are following the laws of God. The conflict between personal conscience and man-made laws is as old as civilization. One of the greatest of ancient Greek tragedies, Antigone, written by Sophocles in 441 B.C., is about a woman who, heeding her own conscience and duty, dares to bury her brother, contrary to a decree by the king who ordered the dead warrior to rot unburied, without sacred rites.
These conflicts persist into our own era. Like Antigone, Davis has a right to her religious convictions. However, and this is a big however, she has no right to defy federal law without expecting consequences – that is, being fined, jailed and/or terminated from her job. Her duties as clerk must be aligned with the laws. Otherwise, she has a choice – either resign or be fired. Davis also has a right to oppose the law, to fight to overturn it, but only as a citizen participating in the ongoing tug-of-war that is – not by refusing to fulfill her duties as county clerk. It’s a classic case of why the separation of Church and State is in the U.S. Constitution.
Unlike Davis, Wallace did not (explicitly, anyway) invoke God’s law when defying federal decrees, although he did fulminate at that school door like a tin god himself, with a bullying righteousness and a sadly misguided “moral” authority to uphold segregation. In the years before his death, Wallace renounced segregation, apologized for his previous racist views and behavior, and asked forgiveness from blacks.
It will be interesting if some day Davis, too, apologizes for her defiance as clerk and asks forgiveness from those she denied granting licenses. But, come what may, Davis in the meantime has every right to take her personal stand, just as others all throughout history – some of them movers and shakers like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. – defied what they viewed as immoral or unjust man-made laws. They paid the consequences, through fines and jail time, but they made their points, and in doing so they helped change history.