Democracy and Kim Davis (and her supporters)
By now, pretty much everyone has heard of Kim Davis: the Kentucky County Clerk who has decided her religious convictions trump the law and who thus has refused to issue marriage licenses to both gay and straight couples in order to prevent any gay couples from getting married.
Notably, many of her supporters claims her decision should be respected on the grounds of religious freedom: that she has a sincere religious belief opposing gay marriage, and since she has the right to practice her religion as a citizen, she should not be forced to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
Many critics of Davis’ actions have appropriately pointed out that it’s different when your actual job is carrying out the law: Davis is a government official charged with implementing the law of Kentucky and of the United States. In essence, one contracts away one’s right to object to the law when one accepts government employment. Thus, while Davis is free to oppose gay marriage as a private person, she is not free to implement her private biases in her public position. She has failed to understand this distinction between her private and public selves, and this failure has landed her in jail for contempt of court.
I want to suggest there is a bigger misunderstanding at the heart of Davis’ (and her supporters’) arguments that she can reject those laws she does not support on (presumably) sincere religious grounds: Davis is not a lawmaker.
See, democracies – representative ones, in any case – separate the law making and law implementing functions of government. Typically, people elect others to represent them in government, and vote for or against those elected officials based on their ideologies, policies, successes and failures. Meanwhile, other government personnel try to translate those laws and policies into empirical form: cops arrest people; firefighters put out fires; social welfare workers deliver aid; militaries go … and military stuff. And while it is certainly the case that implementing agents and agencies can influence policies and programs (the whole field of public administration is premised on this fact), they are supposed to do it in a way that enhances or stays within the spirit of the law they are implementing. They are NOT allowed to, as individuals, nullify, reject, or otherwise relegislate policy decisions made in democratically-established and democratically legitimate venues.
Kim Davis has, in effect, claimed that she is a legislature of 1. Her supporters seem to think that’s just fine. But it’s not. Her actions constitute the pure elevation of individual will over democratic practices. Accepting her decision as legitimate means fundamentally rejecting the notion of government of, for and by the people.
Davis’ supporters seem to claim she’s just exercising her rights in failing to do her job. But she’s not. She’s conflating the law making and the law implementing functions and making her own ego the center of all politics.
That’s not democracy. That’s fascism.