By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – Social conservatives seem to have a new set of folk heroes.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
They’re applauding the county clerks and other public officials who, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay unions in all 50 states, refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The defiant clerks say condoning gay marriage violates their religious principles – and that issuing licenses would make them complicit in an act they believe to be immoral.
In defying the law, they – and their fans – say they merely are standing up for religious liberty. They’re not lawbreakers or even bigots; no, they are martyrs in a holy cause.
It’s an interesting argument, one that could stand both the law and reason itself on their heads if thinking people took it seriously.
The premise is that society should not be able to ask anyone to violate his or her religious principles, even in exchange for a position, salary and benefits that the individual sought out and willingly accepted. To ask someone to do the job for which he or she receives pay now apparently is an act of tyranny.
I seem to recall some biblical injunctions against murder.
If issuing a marriage license to – or preparing a wedding cake for – someone somehow makes clerks or bakers responsible for actions that contradict their religious values, then does it not follow that the public official who issues a carry permit or a gun dealer who sells a weapon to someone who uses it to commit a murder is also responsible for that murder?
Does the public official who thinks issuing a license to carry – a Quaker, perhaps – might violate his or her faith have the right to defy the law and not issue the license?
Shouldn’t we give those officials the “right” to overrule gun laws around the nation if they think allowing someone to walk around with a firearm would violate their deeply held religious values?
Or, let’s stick with the clerks and the question of marriage licenses.
Suppose a clerk is a devout follower of a particular religious tradition and believes that all other denominations represent false teaching. Does that mean he or she may honor those deeply held beliefs by refusing to issue licenses of people of other faith traditions?
Just how many laws are we going to give individual people the power to choose whether to honor or not?
I understand that many social conservatives are unhappy with the court’s same-sex marriage ruling. The fact that it was decided, 5-4 – or by “five lawyers” as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his petulant dissent – aggravates them even further.
But, if that’s a reason for ignoring the law, quite a few things will be up for grabs. The Heller decision, which established for the first time in American history – and defied more than a century of Supreme Court precedents in the process – that the Second Amendment provided for an individual rather than a collective right to own guns was decided 5-4. It touched off a wave of freshly drafted gun laws that now, among other things, allow people to bring guns to Indiana schools when they couldn’t before.
And, of course, Bush v. Gore – which decided a presidential election and set us as a nation on a course that led to two costly and tragic wars – also came down with a 5-4 vote.
My guess is that quite a few Americans would have liked the option to ignore those rulings.
But they didn’t.
They followed the law.
Many social conservatives also suggest these clerks and other public officials are like latter-day Martin Luther Kings – martyrs defying an unjust law.
There’s a bit of a difference.
Dr. King believed in the redemptive power of unmerited and unjust suffering. He believed that paying the price for challenging unfair or immoral laws was essential to the process of changing those laws. He believed in the true power of martyrdom.
That is why, in defense of his deeply held religious beliefs, he was willing to accept beatings and go to jail.
The supposed “martyrs” opposed to same-sex marriage, in defense of their deeply held religious beliefs, are willing to go on talk radio and Fox News.
Not quite the same thing.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.