A matter of conscience: Should religious beliefs exempt people from obeying the law?

The arrest and subsequent jailing of a Kentucky county clerk for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses has ignited Church and state copycontroversy over whether people in the workplace have the right to refuse to comply with laws if they are contrary to their religious beliefs.

The latest round of debates began when Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis gained national attention after being jailed for failure to comply with a court order from US District Judge David Bunning, to issue same-sex couples marriage licenses. The US Supreme Court handed down a ruling earlier this year that legally codified same-sex unions and compels all states to honor marriage license applications from same-sex couples.

Immediately, religious and conservative organizations challenged the ruling, asserting that marriage is between one man and one woman. Davis, 49, who is a Apostolic Christian, said that her personal morals and religious beliefs will not allow her to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

On Tuesday, after five days behind bars on contempt charges, Bunning ordered that Davis be released. However, Bunning added that Davis’ release was on the condition that she did not prevent her office from fulfilling its legal obligation to comply with the law. Attorneys earlier petitioned Gov. Steve Beshear for Davis’ release but Beshear declined to intervene, citing the conflict as being a matter for the courts.

Shortly after her release on Tuesday, a jubilant but still defiant Davis addressed a crowd of supporters, urging them to continue resistance and not give in.

“Thank you all so much. I love you all so very much… I just want to give God the glory. His people have rallied, and you are a strong people. We serve a living God who knows exactly where each and every one of us is at. Just keep on pressing. Don’t let down, because he is here. He’s worthy,” Davis said to the cheering crowd.

Lawyers representing Davis, who plans to return to work, are seeking a way to allow Davis to stay on her job but not have to issue marriage licenses.


The case of Kim Davis is one of several that have cropped up across the country involving individuals’ refusal to provide services to gay and lesbian couples.

In Colorado where same-sex marriage was legalized in 2014, the courts found that a Lakewood, Colo., bakery illegally discriminated against a same-sex couple for refusing to make a wedding cake for them. Jack Phillips, the owner of the bakery specifically said that he would not serve gay couples, which also violates a longstanding Colorado civil rights law as well as federal law.

As with Davis, the courts ruled against Philips, ordering him to serve the couple if he planned on continuing to serve the public. Philips, like Davis opted for jail before violating his religious beliefs. The problem is that Davis and Philips believe that they should be able to refuse service to gay people yet continue to serve the rest of the public.

Not so, according to the courts which have ruled without fail,even before the passage of this new law, that people cannot be discriminated against on the grounds of race, age, or sex and also expanded to address sexual orientation as well. According to the courts, religious beliefs are no defense against refusal to comply with the law.

One cannot look at the current situation without drawing parallels with the Civil Rights Movement of the previous century. Just as there was much resistance to African-Americans gaining rights, we see the same and even increased resistance toward the gay community.

This is not just a matter of conscience, it is also a matter of law vs Constitutional rights. Theoretically, all citizens are protected under the Bill of Rights but this is a situation where laws clash. The perceived protection provided by the First Amendment guarantees people freedom of religion but the courts say this does not extend to the public workplace.

In other words, no local, state or federal employee can refuse any service mandated by law. Private sector business employees are not exempt either. What’s worse is that even if a person resigns from their position, they could still be held civilly liable for their actions while employed.

Should the government have this much power over our lives or do we really have certain inalienable rights that trump the will of the State?

But if people have the right to say no based solely on religious grounds, what about the rights of the others who are being refused? Shouldn’t they be allowed to exercise their freedom of belief as well. More importantly, how can we reconcile the two?

Historically, devout believers in in God have consistently stood by those beliefs, even if it meant incarceration or even death in some cases. When dealing with such a strong force, is it possible to reach a compromise?

Some people call religion the “Great Divider” but in truth there are other things that divide us as well such as race and political ideologies.

Such is a prevailing and everlasting problem with the double-edged sword of freedom when competing paradigms clash but which authority should be the ultimate decider of policy? Should it be the State, under its rule of law or should it be religion, under its rule by God?