Saturday, September 12, 2015

Religious Freedom vs Sworn Duty?

Update 11-16-2015:  I have seen nothing since that would change any of these opinions or conclusions.

Original Posting:

Kim Davis,  a county clerk in Kentucky,  was recently sent to jail for contempt of court.  This was for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples,  on account of her personal religious beliefs.  This refusal is in violation of a recent US Supreme Court decision making such licenses legal,  nationwide.

She has since been released.  But,  she is unrepentant,  and seems to have lots of supporters.

Videos posted on line do in fact show the nature of her interaction with that fraction of the public which actually is gay (under 10%).  She clearly refuses to issue the marriage license on account of her personal religious beliefs,  which in effect holds the requestor to the same religious practices as Ms. Davis

Yet issuing such licenses as this,  is the very nature of the job she holds.  It is county clerks who typically issue marriage licenses.  They are sworn to uphold the law regarding this function,  and many others. 

Nearly all of us have heard the old saw about how individual rights are not absolute:  your right to swing your fist ends before your fist reaches my nose.  We can always debate exactly where your right to swing your fist actually ends,  but the basic principle is always somewhere before you strike my nose,  no exceptions. 

Similarly,  all of you have a right to believe in any sort of religious traditions that you choose,  and to practice them in any way that suits you.  But,  that right of yours is not absolute.  Your right to practice your religion ends somewhere before you impose your personal beliefs and practices upon me.  Or anybody else.  Just like your right to swing your fist ends before you strike anybody. 

We do not all believe in exactly the same religious teachings.  That is precisely why we established a fundamental principle of separation of church and state,  for one thing. 

For another,  our common law must be the lowest common denominator we all can agree upon,  else the union will inevitably dissolve in some sort of insurrection.  We’ve seen this effect before – it led to the Civil War,  for one thing. 

To do otherwise than lowest common denominator for common law is thus demonstrably insane policy.  That common-denominator approach comes from the same limitations-on-rights principle as exists for fist-swinging.    In point of fact,  it underlies most of the truly fundamental American legal traditions. 

Ms. Davis is faced with a personal moral dilemma:  either she is true to her sworn oath to uphold the law,  or else she is true to her personal religious beliefs.  If she cannot find it within herself to issue marriage licenses to gay couples,  then she should not continue in her job as county clerk.  Simple as that. 

I would suggest that her county look for another position she could fill,  outside of this moral conflict,  before they either fire her,  or accept her resignation.  That is because her job expectations changed after she assumed the position,  thanks to the Supreme Court decision.  Fair is only fair. 

But,  I see no other practical options available to her,  or to her county. 

That being said,  this same limitations-on-rights principle has other applications in American life.  One obvious one has to do with the politics of abortion. 

Science says there is no distinct line between human life and not-life.  It is a gradual spectrum,  pure and simple.  Any line we draw is both purely human and entirely arbitrary.  Saying otherwise does not refute this truth. 

If you base your decision on the potential ability of cells to reproduce,  then you should never even contemplate clipping your fingernails.  That is patently ridiculous,  even to the most religiously-fundamentalist among us. 

Equally insane would be to base it on actual birth.  That’s because we have evidence of self-awareness in fetuses nearing full-term.  So where do you draw the line?  Everybody has a different suggestion,  but all lie between the two endpoints of conception and birth. 

But when you combine that inherent human uncertainty with the fact that not all of us share the same religious beliefs and practices,  you inevitably conclude that the “line” between human life and not-life is entirely an arbitrary matter.  There is no line,  except what we together choose to draw. 

Once you realize that any such line is arbitrary,  then inevitably it follows that we need to draw that line as the lowest common denominator that we all can agree upon.  We collectively,  who separately have such disparate beliefs,  must be able to live within any such law.  In other words,  the limitation-on-rights principle applies,  including any religious teachings we may bring to bear on the decision.

Why is this limitations-on-rights principle so important?  Why is separation of church and state so important?  These traditions are almost unique to America.  But,  these (and our other unique rule-of-law traditions) are the sources of much of our individual freedom.  That’s what makes them so important. 

Look at other countries that lack such traditions,  and you can readily see how easily one group dominates the others,  misusing religion to justify this,  and to justify virtually any atrocity to enforce it.  Africa and the Middle East are just eaten-up with that evil. 

We surely don’t want that here! Open that door for one,  you have opened it for all.  

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