What Can Kim Davis Accomplish from Jail?

It took barely over two months.

If you’re keeping score, keep that number in mind: two months. That’s how long it took for someone to be sent to jail because of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision from the end of June imposing same-sex marriage on all fifty states. In the United States of America, a county clerk now sits behind bars because she refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in violation of her conscience. Ponder that sentence for a minute. In the United States of America, a county clerk now sits behind bars because she refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in violation of her conscience.

Think back to 2008, when candidate Barack Obama felt compelled to hide his support for same-sex marriage by voicing public opposition to it, citing his personal religious beliefs as the basis for doing so. He knew the general public wasn’t ready to elect a candidate who took such a radical position as the one he held personally, namely, that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry in all fifty states. Here we are seven years later, and a woman sits in jail because she has taken a stand for the same position Barack Obama publicly advocated in 2008. Seven years is the blink of an eye in the scope of history, and yet that is how far we have come in such a short amount of time.

The moral revolution that has crescendoed into a landmark Supreme Court decision has left our society in a turmoil of uncertainty about where we will land on questions of religious liberty once the fog clears away. Every battle over religious liberty sets a precedent that further solidifies the direction our culture will go. To this point, early battles have not yielded encouraging results. One thinks of Aaron and Melissa Klein, fined an astronomical sum for a mere refusal to lend their artistic abilities to the celebration of a same-sex wedding. And now, a mere two months after the Supreme Court unilaterally altered the job descriptions of county clerks all over the country, one of them sits in jail for her failure to conform. Federal Judge David Bunning (son of the former Senator from Kentucky, Jim Bunning) has decided that the best way to swat a fly is to use a sledge hammer.

And yet, the insane overreach of Judge Bunning is the very thing that provides Kim Davis the opportunity to create lasting change by her suffering. Reasonable people on all sides of this debate would seem to agree that forcing her to sit in jail is an extreme measure, and it would be much more preferable for the state of Kentucky to work out a compromise that would enable the county clerk’s office to fulfill the responsibilities forced on it by the Supreme Court without forcing Mrs. Davis to participate. To this point, the state of Kentucky has failed to act in any way to address this situation. Democratic Governor Steve Beshear is not persuaded that state action is necessary, since only three county clerks have taken exception to their new job descriptions from the Supreme Court.

Well, if Governor Beshear thinks the consciences of three county clerks are expendable, I suppose that is his prerogative. But surely the people of the state of Kentucky are capable of letting him know that this issue is far bigger than he thinks, and that they would overwhelmingly support (as I suspect they would) a compromise solution that would ensure Christians with conviction could continue to serve as county clerks without having to send any more of them to jail. The longer Kim Davis sits in jail, the louder the outcry to Governor Beshear and the state legislature of Kentucky should echo until the voice of the people has been heard. (So that means, if you are a resident of Kentucky reading this, you need to light up the switchboard at the state capitol and pack the inboxes of everyone you can think of until your point has been made.)

Christian leaders whom I respect have been tepid, to say the least, in their support of Kim Davis. Rod Dreher has argued that Mrs. Davis has chosen the wrong hill on which to die, and that we should fall back to defending private Christian institutions, not the conscience rights of Christians serving in government positions. Dreher says that if we fight this particular battle, we risk alienating people in the middle whom we will need to persuade when the appropriate time comes to fight for the religious liberty of our institutions. Essentially, Dreher’s argument entails that the position of county clerk in the state of Kentucky is now off-limits to any Christian who holds convictions on this matter. We have lost that battle, and fighting it now will only hurt our chances to win later.

But why are we already conceding defeat when the battle has just begun? Does Dreher see no possibility that the outlandish treatment of Mrs. Davis could itself become the event that exposes the slash-and-burn tactics of the other side in this debate, thereby showing those in the middle how extreme this revolution has become? And we’re talking about the citizens of the state of Kentucky, for crying out loud! Not exactly a bastion of left-wing ideology. If Kim Davis can draw attention (as she is doing by taking her courageous stance) to the utter mess the Supreme Court has foisted on the states, thereby motivating state governments to carve out conscience exceptions for county clerks and others in similar positions, wouldn’t that represent an achievement that would more than vindicate her suffering?

Others have drawn attention to the fact that, as a county clerk, Kim Davis acts as an agent of the state. It would therefore seem theoretically possible for her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on behalf of the state without thereby giving her personal endorsement of the practice. I can only hope that all of the other Christian county clerks in Kentucky (and across the nation) who are readily complying with the demands of the Supreme Court have reasoned their way to such a conclusion. But does that solution actually work? It seems that all would agree it doesn’t work in every situation. Who among us would hold innocent the murderers of the Nazi government who simply followed orders as agents of the state? And if the “agent of the state” excuse doesn’t work there, why should it work here? Not enough moral reflection has gone into this argument to make it work, at least not yet.

The bottom line for me is this: Kim Davis has exercised, and continues to exercise, amazing courage in the face of an oppressive government, an antagonistic media, and even criticism from Christians who have never faced such a decision as she has. She has taken a stand against unrighteousness, and it would behoove all of us who care about religious liberty to stand with her now in the task of exposing the overreach of the forces that have accomplished an unprecedented moral revolution in a historical blink of an eye. Who knows? We may even accomplish something if we do.

About Aaron O'Kelley

Aaron O'Kelley (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor and theological educator who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife and their three children.
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2 Responses to What Can Kim Davis Accomplish from Jail?

  1. Mary Stewart says:

    Well said, Bro. Aaron.

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