Acts of Conscience? The Cowardice of #KimDavis

Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania risked his position and his life to save thousands from Nazi concentration camps

Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania risked his position and his life to save thousands from Nazi concentration camps

Throughout history, there have been admirable people who have risked their lives to follow their conscience when circumstance or mainstream society presented them with ethical dilemmas. There are huge numbers, globally, of people who commit acts of conscience everyday, believing that they have no choice but to act ethically in the face of evil, cruelty, prejudice… These are not people who cling onto their authority and perpetuate exclusion, they RISK it. For all the paragons of conscience you know of, there are literally hundreds of thousands you’ve never heard of. Little people – nameless people – who do the right thing. And it costs them. It costs them their friends, their jobs, their health, and on occasion, it costs them their lives.

An act of conscience is seldom without cost. That’s why acting upon one’s conscience is often hard. That’s why everyone doesn’t do it all the time. That’s why the world is not a fairer, kinder, more ethical place.

Kim Davis, the Kentucky County Clerk who has spent the last few months refusing to issue marriage licenses to anyone after the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriages legal in the US, would like to represent herself as a person following her conscience and a religious martyr, but she is not.

I don’t want to debate her anti-same-sex marriage stance. As you probably guessed, I disagree with it. But I do believe she has every right to hold the opinion she has. She has the right to express it, loud and long. She even has the right to stand on the other side of the courthouse’s desk and object to the issuance of those licenses, or turn up at churches and speak up when the pastor or priest or rabbi or whoever says ‘if anyone has reason to object to this union, speak now or forever hold your peace’.

The proper act of conscience for Kim Davis would have been to quit her job. To make it clear WHY she felt she couldn’t continue to do her job. To stand on the steps of the registry with a placard if she liked. To take the state to court and attempt to argue for a repeal to the new law.

But holding onto her position of power as a county clerk tasked with the issuance of marriage licenses and refusing to do the job she was elected to do, while still taking a salary, while still enjoying the position of authority the job gave her… that was not an act of conscience or an act of spiritual courage.

That was an unforgivable and illegitimate abuse of power.

Her lawyer has compared Ms Davis’ contempt of court charge to the treatment of Jews by the Nazis. He appears to find no irony in the fact that the Nazis also persecuted  homosexuals with the same level of dedication that Ms Davis has so recently shown in denying them marriage licenses.

Kim Davis is no Primo Levi, no Alexander Solzhenitsyn, no Nelson Mandela, no Martin Luther King Jr. Neither she nor her lawyer get to make the claim that she is a victim of anything other than her own cowardice. Because none of the people I have listed would ever have continued to hold office or take wages from a state they believed was acting immorally. And she did.

Whether you agree with Ms. Davis’ stance or you don’t, it behooves you to be intellectually honest enough to admit that her actions were not those of a conscientious objector but of a woman who wanted to have her cake and eat it too.