Kentucky’s Rowan County Clerk, Kim Davis, is an elected official briefly held in contempt of court for failure to perform her official duties in issuing marriage licenses. She has refused on the basis of her religious beliefs. The main issue here is that people fail to understand what it means to act as an agent of the government.
When someone is acting as an agent of the government, it is not them acting as their own, private person. It is them taking on the government’s persona in order to accomplish the tasks of governing in the absence of robots and computers capable of doing them. Some day soon, positions like Davis’ may be eliminated and a robotic computer may issue marriage licenses in Kentucky. In the meantime, we use humans to represent the government in such cases.
When you stop at a stoplight, the stoplight represents the government regulating the flow of traffic. If we did not have stoplight technology, and if a Kim Davis traffic officer believed that women oughtn’t drive, could she refuse to let a woman pass?
Of course not. Her personal beliefs are irrelevant when it comes to acting as an agent of the government. That brings us to our first distinction: the act of assuming governmental agency versus the act of exercising that agency.
When someone chooses to assume governmental agency, that is the point when they are to let their conscience dictate their ability to be a government agent. They don’t do it once, but every single day. Every police officer, every lawmaker, every attorney general and district attorney, every president and mayor and governor makes the choice every single day to continue to act as an agent of the government.
When it comes time to actually perform the government’s business is not the time to invoke the conscience, unless it is to resign.
The notable exception to all of this is military service, in which forces do not have free choice to continuously evaluate their position.
Now, in the case of this Kentucky county clerk, the State of Kentucky can certainly modify the law to allow someone like her to act as its agent without violating her beliefs. That’s not a problem if done, as the state will continue to recognize the rights of its people. But it must be done first. This is not a situation where the state can just shrug off its responsibilities and pretend it is not the government.
The government and its agents have a duty to the people, which has not been made clear enough if its own agents fail to understand that duty. If you work for the government, when you go to work you act not as yourself, but as all of us, through the filter of the law. If you cannot, you should not.