Imagine applying for a government job in which one among the many duties listed in the job description is to lead a group once weekly in the Pledge of Allegiance, and being told that, if you are an agnostic or atheist, you still have to say, “Under God.” If you refuse to do so, you will be provided no designee to discharge the activity, and will be fired if you persist in not carrying out this duty. I don’t think the answer you would give to the atheist or agnostic is, “Don’t like it? Apply for another job.” That would be an undue burden on the atheist’s or agnostic’s conscience.
Likewise with Kentucky clerk and fundamentalist Christian, Kim Davis. We liberals should not be forcing her conscience, and she was right to do a Thoreau and accept jail as an alternative to compliance.
Gay and lesbian marriage should not be a zero-sum game where gays and lesbians secure a human right and religious traditionalists have their own human rights eroded. The free exercise of conscience is a human right.
I think her reasons for opposing gay and lesbian marriage are ludicrous, and her fear of hell if she signs the license is idiotic, but when I see her, I think of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (of “I prefer not to” fame), and say, “You are a nice reminder not to take shit from anybody. And though I don’t think your reasons for refusal are rational, I do recognize your gumption as a human being, and the heroism inherent in asserting your inner integrity. I understand what it means to feel one’s conscience violated.”
And empowering the state to put an undo burden on conscience means not learning from history (that state power easily metastasizes): “First they came for the fundamentalist Christians, but because I wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian…”
Kim Davis is thus right to stay in jail until the Kentucky legislature is shamed into passing a law that carves out protections for conscientious objection to gay and lesbian marriage for state employees–even as it also provides for legal designees without objections to process the marriage licenses of gay and lesbian couples.
Gays and lesbians aren’t going away, and neither are religious traditionalists. A win-win path to protected rights for all is available here, but partisan perches have to be surrendered to make that happen.