The Meaning of Religious Freedom

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There is a clear distinction between religious freedom and flouting the law. Kim Davis is doing the latter.

In the American folk-hero sweepstakes, Kim Davis doesn’t come close to Norma Rae or Rosa Parks. Davis is the clerk of Rowan County, Ky., who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and served five days in jail for contempt of court. In playing out her act of defiance, Davis was not speaking religious freedom truth to power. Instead, she was flouting the law of the land, enshrined in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized gay marriage.
 
We don’t question Davis’ claimed religious belief. Nor would we support an effort to force her to do something that violates her religious dictates. But there is nothing unique about Davis’ religious dilemma. 
 
Our country has always made room in law and in custom for conscientious objectors. Be it Muslims who don’t want to distribute alcohol, Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t want to raise flags or Jews who don’t want to work on Saturday, we have supported “workarounds” — in which another worker performs the duties that the employee feels violate his or her religious conscience. These kinds of religious accommodations make the life of our citizenry more comfortable, without threatening the cohesion of our government or society. Just such a workaround could easily be implemented in the Rowan County Clerk’s office.
 
The real threat from the Davis situation comes from those who have tried to exploit the case and tried to elevate it into a threat to religious freedom. For example, former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has described the Davis case as “the criminalization of Christianity in this country,” saying that “we must defend religious liberty and never surrender to judicial tyranny.” Huckabee’s call against “judicial tyranny” is demagoguery, and his claim that that Christianity is under attack rings false. Obergefell v. Hodges is no more tyrannical than the landmark campaign finance case Citizens United, with which many people disagreed. But not every disagreement needs to be elevated to an existential confrontation.  
 
Polls show that more religious Americans approve of same-sex marriage than not. Whether the Kim Davises of the country are in the majority or the minority, their rights must be protected. But that protection cannot come at undue cost to everyone else.

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