Shortly before the Labor Day weekend, a federal judge in Kentucky ordered the Rowan County clerk incarcerated for violating his orders. Five days later, he released her.
The judge found that the clerk, Kim Davis, interfered with the ability of same-sex couples in her county to marry by refusing to issue them applications for marriage licenses. Davis argued that she was following her conscience, which is grounded in a well-known Christian antipathy to same-sex marriages, which, in turn, is protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Here is the backstory.
Davis is the clerk of Rowan County, Ky. Among her duties as county clerk is the issuance of applications for marriage licenses. When she assumed office, she took an oath to administer her duties consistent with the U.S. Constitution. Her job with respect to licenses is ministerial: issuing documents to those who legally qualify for them and filing the documents when they are returned to her.
Kentucky law requires that applicants for marriage licenses be unmarried, residents of Kentucky and at least 18 years of age. As a county clerk, Davis cannot add to these requirements another requirement — namely, that the applicants be of the opposite sex. She cannot do that because the Supreme Court has ruled that marriage is a fundamental liberty, the exercise of which is protected by the Constitution, and within that liberty is the right to choose a same-sex marriage mate, uninterfered with by the state.
By adding her own requirement and using the force of law to enforce that requirement, she is frustrating the ruling of the Supreme Court, interfering with the fundamental liberties of marriage applicants, and violating her oath to uphold the Constitution, the final interpreter of which is the Supreme Court.
After Davis refused to comply with two of his orders to issue applications to those who comply with Kentucky law and not to add her own requirement, a federal trial judge found that she was in a state of civil contempt, and he incarcerated her.
Civil contempt is not a crime. Hence she was not sentenced to a jail term. The purpose of her incarceration was not punishment; rather, it was coercion. The courts have limited resources with which to coerce reluctant litigants to comply with court orders, and incarceration is one of them.
The court properly interpreted its duties under the Constitution, but was wrong to incarcerate her.
Davis is running a county clerk’s office, not a church and not a legislative body. Moreover, her imposition of her own religious requirement upon the license applicants violates the well-respected and long-held First Amendment value of separation of church and state. She is free to believe as she wishes and to practice her beliefs, is free to impose her beliefs on her children and family, and is free to attempt to persuade others of the salvific value of her beliefs. But she is not free to use the force of law to further her beliefs by denying legal rights to those unwilling to accept them.
Suppose her religion forbade interracial marriage (as some Mormon Churches do). Could she deny a marriage license application to an interracial couple? Or, suppose she was a traditionalist Roman Catholic, who believed that Catholics should only marry other Catholics. Could she deny a marriage license application to a Catholic planning to marry a non-Catholic? Or, suppose her religion condemned the private ownership and use of guns (as some Quakers do). Could she refuse to issue applications for gun permits? The answers are obvious.
If her personal religious views could trump her obligations under the law when she is in a ministerial and not a discretionary government job, and other government officials similarly situated could do the same, then we’d lack the rule of law in America, and we would live instead under the discretion of bureaucrats.
But she should not have been sent to jail. Judges must do all possible to resist the temptation to incarcerate defiant litigants, because incarceration should be the last resort. Judges should enforce their rulings using the least force necessary, not the most force available. And history teaches that for those who conscientiously defy the law — particularly for religious-based reasons — incarceration is often fruitless.
I would have removed her authority to issue marriage license applications and assigned it to others in the Kentucky state government, and directed them to issue the applications in accordance with the law. That would have kept Davis free and her conscience clear, and permitted those in Rowan County to get married to whom they choose.
What about the St. Thomas More argument: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first”? That is not relevant here. More was tried, convicted and executed for his personal refusal to accept a heretical doctrine: that the monstrous King Henry VIII was somehow the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England. Even More admitted that one must do all one can to avoid martyrdom, even leaving public office knowing that one’s successor will do what one has refused.
The Free Exercise Clause guarantees individuals the lawful ability to practice their religion free from government interference. It does not permit those in government to use their offices to deny the rights of those who reject their beliefs. That is the lesson for Kim Davis.