A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Kim, Gavin, and Martin: Breaking the Law to Save It

Where did August go? Lately my goal has been to blog once a month, but August was a total fail on that score. Here's to recommitting for fall!

The news these days has been abuzz with stories about Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who has refused to issue marriage licenses and been unwilling to comply with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision authorizing gay marriage everywhere in the United States. To some she has become a hero of the right to religious freedom, to others she is a pariah of backwardness.

As Mrs. Davis has been in the news, I couldn't help but think of Gavin Newsom. In case you've forgotten, Mr. Newsom was mayor of San Francisco several years ago, and in 2004 he directed his city clerks to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, in violation of California state law at that time. In a sense, he is the anti-Kim Davis.

It's interesting to me that your position on gay marriage likely colors how you view both Mr. Newsom and Mrs. Davis, even though they are both doing the same thing - breaking the law because it violates their moral principles. It's also interesting that both individuals have expressed a strong sense of faith (Mr. Newsom is Catholic, Mrs. Davis is a self-described Apostolic Christian). These individuals have reminded me of one of our country's most famous law breakers in the name of religion and conscience: Martin Luther King.

Dr. King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail" remains one of the best explications of breaking the law to save it that I've ever read (and it's probably a better use of your time to read it than this blog post). Here's an excerpt that I thought applied to the current situation:

One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

How then do we determine which laws to follow and which to break? Dr. King writes:

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.

Thus, if the presidential candidate I support loses the election, and I had a right to vote and participate in the democratic process behind that, I still have to obey the laws signed by that president. This gets trickier, though, in light of a Supreme Court decision that was not made by democratically elected leaders. One of the main arguments of the anti-gay marriage groups seems to be that the Supreme Court cannot make laws, as they were not democratically elected. I've been disturbed by some of this rhetoric, as it could lead to a lack of respect for U.S. Supreme Court decisions that we disagree with. But I think this goes back to what Dr. King said about the law binding everybody - the majority and the minority.

For example, the marriage licenses issued by Gavin Newsom's clerks were ultimately invalidated by the California courts. In other words, the law should apply equally to everyone - if you believe the law is unjust, work hard to change the law, and be willing to accept the penalties of breaking the law. Current polls suggest that most Americans support gay marriage (55% according to the Pew Research Center's data). How do we square that with peoples' religious beliefs on gay marriage? I think we are all still working that out.

In typical me fashion, I hope we can have respect for both the Gavin Newsoms and Kim Davises of the world. They are doing right as they see the right. Further, they are my brothers and my sisters. My duty is to love them and seek to understand them rather than demonizing them or belittling their sincerely held beliefs. I close with some more of the words of another brother, Dr. King, who asks us some important questions.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?