Finally, justice in Kentucky. With Rowan County clerk Kim Davis jailed for contempt of court, her deputies were free this morning to begin issuing marriage licenses.
James Yates and William Smith Jr. were the first to receive their license. Supporters cheered as they left the courthouse, chanting, "Love Won!"
It did indeed.
Today's Rutland Herald/Times Argus editorial:
A public duty
The county clerks in Kentucky and elsewhere who are refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on the basis of the clerks’ religious beliefs misconstrue the relationship between law and religion in our constitutional system.
It is a sadly doomed rear-guard action that Kim Davis of Rowan County, Kentucky, is fighting, turning away couples who have come to her office for a marriage license. A federal judge found her in contempt Thursday and ordered her to jail. Her supporters may believe her resistance represents a valiant defense of principle. But when she says she is refusing to issue marriage licenses on the authority of God’s law, she forgets that her role as a public official requires her to follow the secular law. When the two conflict, our constitutional system does not allow her to subject the public to the dictates of her religion.
Why do we demand that our public officials adhere to the Constitution? Government officials — including clerks, school boards, police officers, judges — wield power on behalf of the public on the basis of rules that have their foundation in the Constitution. No citizen may be deprived of his or her constitutional rights without due process of law. That is in the 14th Amendment. And when government officials deprive people of their rights, they may be called to account in the courts.
That is what happened when the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that the School Board of Topeka, Kansas, could not legally segregate its schools on the basis of race. It happened when the Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that no state could deny a marriage license to couples on the basis of race. And it happened this year when the court ruled that couples could not be denied a marriage license on the basis of sexual orientation.
Defiance of Supreme Court rulings has a long history. In the 1950s, the governor of Virginia closed the state’s public schools for months rather than open them to African-Americans. In Little Rock, Arkansas, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called out the National Guard to escort students into the public high school. The governors of Virginia and Arkansas were convinced that their interpretation of the law trumped the Supreme Court, but they were wrong.
County or town clerks have been on the front lines of the marriage equality struggle. When three same-sex couples in Vermont went to their town clerks in the 1990s seeking marriage licenses, the clerks refused them. They believed they had no authority under state law to grant those licenses. It wasn’t until the state Supreme Court ruled in the Baker case that the three couples deserved all the rights and benefits of marriage that the Legislature created civil unions.
Much of the opposition to civil unions was founded on religious beliefs, but the Constitution does not allow any religion to dictate the secular law. That is why John F. Kennedy felt compelled when he was running for president to affirm that he would serve the U.S. Constitution and not the pope. We had never had a Catholic president before, and there was suspicion that a Catholic president would feel compelled to serve two masters. Kennedy made sure the people understood that would not happen.
When it comes to gay marriage, the American people need to know that their public servants are fulfilling their public obligations, which means administering the law fairly to all. People with certain religious beliefs may decide they are not well suited to the duties of a county clerk, and if that is the case, they ought to seek other work rather than impose their beliefs on those who do not share them.
These are the inevitable tensions within a democracy that provides for religious liberty and also demands equality before the law. It is to misread the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage to believe it narrows religious liberty. What it narrows is the opportunity for public servants to impose their religious views on others.