Render Unto Caesar

Gay marriage
Gay marriage
Same-sex marriage (also known as gay marriage) is marriage between two persons of the same biological sex and/or gender identity. Legal recognition of same-sex marriage or the possibility to perform a same-sex marriage is sometimes referred to as marriage equality or equal marriage, particularly by supporters. | Photo: | Gay Marriage, Homosexual, Rights, Religion, Prop 8, Lesbian, Gay,

Public servants have a duty to serve everyone

John F. Kennedy once declared that America should be "officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source -- where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials."

As gay marriage continues making inroads around the country, some local officials have decided that JFK was wrong. Their duty as a government employee isn't defined by government or the law, it's defined by their religion. If their religious belief is that gay people shouldn't get married, law and duty be damned.

After gay marriage became legal in New York state, for instance, Ledyard Town Clerk Rose Marie Belforti told gay couples she wouldn't sign their marriage license, so her deputy would have to do it -- but she had no deputy (the town hired one later so Belforti wouldn't have to compromise).

In 2014, Sherri Healy, a county clerk in Indiana, said that because she believes marriage is for straights only, she won't issue gay marriage licenses unless she gets an explicit order from the state.

In March this year, Nebraska County Clerk Janene Bennett said she also refuses to issue gay marriage licenses because of her faith. Bennett told the media that she was going to consult her priest about whether to forbid her subordinates to issue licenses (apparently if her staff have different religious beliefs, Bennett doesn't have qualms about riding roughshod over them).

In Florida this year, several counties simply stopped having county clerks officiate at any weddings, so it's not like they're actually discriminating (if anyone thinks this change isn't about gays, I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you). In my former home county, Okaloosa, the chief clerk explained that "I do not want to have members of our team put in a situation which presents a conflict between their personal religious beliefs and the implementation of a contentious societal philosophy change."

Over in Oklahoma, a bill just passed the state House that will stop county clerks issuing marriage licenses. Instead, they will file a marriage certificate (for people married by a Christian or Jewish religious leader) or common-law marriage certificates (for almost everyone else).

My gut reaction to all this? Cry me a river. The world's smallest violin is playing for the clerks' suffering and moral torment.

John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower

This Pulitzer Prize-winning photo shows President John F. Kennedy, left, and former president Dwight D. Eisenhower as they walk along a path at Camp David, where the two met to discuss the Bay of Pigs invasion. | Photo: Paul Vathis |
My rational reaction?

These people are public servants. Their job is to provide their services to any member of the public who wants them. Refusing services to citizens they consider unworthy isn't an act of principle, it's a breach of public trust.

Religious freedom is not a blanket get-out-of-what-I-don't-want-to-do card. Depending on the legal standard in play (the law gets complicated, sorry), there is a)no religious exemption if a law is neutral toward religion and doesn't target a particular faith; b)people can claim a religious exemption unless the government has a compelling state interest in overriding their faith (I much prefer the latter rule).

I think the government has a compelling interest in demanding its employees serve all citizens equally, regardless of whether they're hetero or gay, black or white, religious or atheist. It's not the county clerk's job (or city manager's, or tax collector's, etc., etc.) to separate sheep from the goats and then refuse to help the goats.

An alternative argument I've heard in the Oklahoma case is that getting the government out of the marriage business is a good thing. Possibly ... but this bill doesn't do that. It breaks down couples into "marriage" and
common-law marriage" (I've heard different theories on whether this matters legally) based on whether the state approves the officiant. And only Christian and Jewish clergy get approved (the bill's sponsor has said he doesn't think an atheist couple have a marriage the way Christians do). If the goal was reducing government's role, rather than saving clerks from gay marriage cooties I think they'd have worded the bill differently.

Some clerks in New York left their jobs in 2011 rather than issue marriage licenses for gays. I have more respect for them than for those who want to keep their job as a public servant without actually serving.

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Updated Dec 8, 2018 9:34 AM EST | More details


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