Kim Davis might benefit from better counsel. The county clerk is standing firm, refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. But Abraham Lincoln cautioned those in similar situations. “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”
Ms. Davis is the Rowan County (Kentucky) clerk who was released from jail last Tuesday, having agreed that subordinates in her office can issue marriage licenses to gay couples. U.S. District Judge David Bunning had jailed Ms. Davis after she repeatedly defied the court’s order. She said imposing fines would not change her course of action.
That forced the court’s hand. Judge Bunning said his order was “necessary in this case,” as failing to take action against Ms. Davis would set a “dangerous precedent” by allowing other people to assume they could pick and choose which orders they would follow.
Ms. Davis’s lawyers counter that she is standing firm in her Christian faith. She sees marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Granting licenses to gay couples violates her conscience, according to her attorney. She can’t do it.
Ms. Davis is practicing civil disobedience, which is her constitutional right. There’s a rich history of individuals who follow God practicing the right of refusal. Corrie Ten Boom comes to mind, as does Rahab the harlot. But in contrast to Ms. Davis, these two had their feet planted in the right place.
During the Second World War, Corrie Ten Boom hid Jews in her home as Nazi soldiers sought to murder them. She would lie to the soldiers when asked if she knew the whereabouts of any Jews. That was the right thing to do.
In Joshua 2, we read of a harlot named Rahab who lived in Jericho. The Israelite army was on the move, coming to conquer Jericho. In the providence of God, Rahab had an epiphany—the God of Israel is the One True God. Within days, she also had unexpected guests. Israelite spies, sniffing out the city, came knocking on her door.
That presented a problem. The king of Jericho had his soldiers searching the city, seeking to execute the spies. When soldiers came knocking on Rahab’s door, she lied. She told them the Israelite spies had left the city, when in fact they were hidden on the rooftop of her house. Her civil disobedience is described as “justified” (James 2:25 & Heb. 11:31).
Corrie Ten Boom and Rahab were right to stand firm because they put their feet in the right place. The correct stance is discerning whether evil is being prescribed or permitted.
When civil authorities require individuals to actively participate in evil (i.e., revealing the whereabouts of hidden spies or Jews) civil disobedience is justified. Evil is being prescribed. On the other hand, issuing marriage permits to gay couples is only permitting evil (if you believe same-sex marriage is morally wrong). Ms. Davis is under the authority of the government, so issuing licenses is not prescribing any sort of law. That is the jurisdiction of state and national legislators. Civil disobedience is not justified.
It works the same way with abortion. Couples who believe abortion is immoral are correct to disobey any court order prescribing an abortion for their baby. They should flee or hide the child. But if civil authorities only permit abortions to occur, civil disobedience is not justified. Destroying an abortion clinic is not right. Those opposed to abortion should instead pray for a national change of heart, seek to persuade their opponents, picket, protest, and promote legislation to change laws.
Ms. Davis seems to be confusing her faith with her fiduciary responsibilities as a county clerk. The two can often be at odds. Understanding the tension between prescribe and permit would help Ms. Davis put her feet in the right place. She would then be in a better position to sort out the best place to stand firm.
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