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The Price of Principle
Early last month, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis became the latest standard-bearer of civil disobedience in the face of governmental overreach. Her refusal to sign marriage certificates for gay couples made her first a hero among traditionalists in an age of moral anarchy, and then a martyr for conservatism when she chose jail time rather than compromise her beliefs. In the eyes of many, she has become a latter-day Rosa Parks.
Except that she wasn’t.
Let me be clear. I agree with Ms. Davis in every way: the Supreme Court decision conjuring up gay marriage as a constitutional right is an offense against moral and legal tradition, a blow against the crumbling integrity of the family structure upon which civilized society depends, and a travesty of jurisprudence. In his embarrassing decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy didn’t even pretend that his ruling was based in law, but rather on feelings. In many ways, he himself set the stage for Ms. Davis’s act of rebellion.
But all of that is really beside the point.
The point is this: Ms. Davis took an oath of office. If her conscience does not allow her to fulfill her duty, then the principled course of action is to resign. There are consequences that go with conviction, and in this case the path of conscience requires her to remove herself from her position, not to assert that her personal values prevent her from discharging her duty while insisting that she can keep her job. That rationale is akin to Lois Lerner claiming innocence and then taking the fifth. You can’t have it both ways.
In an interview with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, Senator Ted Cruz responded to those calling for Ms. Davis to resign by asking, “where have those voices been calling for the Mayor of San Francisco to resign for having made San Francisco a sanctuary city and defied the immigration laws [and] for President Obama to resign — for six in a half year he has defied immigration law, he has defied welfare reform law, he has even defied his own Obamacare…?”
With all due respect, the Senator had it exactly backwards. By supporting Kim Davis, Senator Cruz undercuts his own objection to President Obama flouting national immigration laws. If Kim Davis is permitted to pick and choose which laws she follows as a matter of conscience, how is that different from Barack Obama’s failure to enforce legislation his conscience tells him is unjust?
This is what happens when respect for the law gives way before personal ideology, regardless of whether that ideology is right or wrong. The result is a societal free-for-all, in which individual feelings and sensitivities trump civic order. My conscience is my own, but it does not permit me to deprive others of their civil rights, no matter how flawed the legal underpinnings of those rights may be.
Not surprising, there is a talmudic precedent. On one occasion, the sages of the Sanhedrin, the highest body of Torah legislation, were engaged in an unusually heated debate. Rabbi Eliezer, the most revered scholar of his time, was unable to convince any of his colleagues to see a particular point of view. Eventually, he became so frustrated with his fellow scholars that he invoked the name of G-d to support his opinion.
According to tradition, a heavenly voice rang out in the chamber declaring that Rabbi Eliezer was correct in his ruling.
Astonishingly, another sage, Rabbi Yehoshua, stood up and replied, “The Law is not in Heaven.” Not only were the sages not swayed by Rabbi Eliezer’s demonstration, but the actually expelled him from the High Court.
The talmudic narrative goes on to record that the Almighty, upon hearing that the sages had disregarded the divine endorsement of Rabbi Eliezer, responded that, “My children have defeated Me.”
In other words, once G-d put the system in law in force for His people to follow, even He may not abrogate the dictates of that law. For once the system of law becomes subject to exceptions, the system will no longer serve its function.
Nevertheless, it must also be said that Senator Cruz was not completely off the mark. If the President of the United States will not uphold the law of the land, if Supreme court justices usurp power over the constitution without the slightest legal pretense to justify their decision, if the Attorney General of the United States will not prosecute local officials or former cabinet officers who show contempt for the law they are sworn to uphold, then why should there be any objection to a county clerk standing up for the tenets of her own religion?
The answer is that wrong behavior does not excuse other wrong behavior. When mutineers are doing their level best to scuttle the ship of state, when even the captain of the ship cannot be trusted to steer a clear and steady course, the solution is not for the crew to take up their hatchets and begin hacking away at the gunwales.
Ultimately, Kim Davis is just the latest symbol of the spreading disgust with politics as usual. The real offenders are the highest officials in the land whose conduct promotes personal feelings over responsibility and accountability. The effects of their civic negligence can be seen in the senseless violence on the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, and in the surreal ascendancy of Donald Trump.
Personally, I applaud Kim Davis for her conviction and her principles. But only when all of us — from the chief executive to the most humble civil servant — put respect for the law before our individual predilections, only then will we be able to restore a climate of common purpose to our fragmented society.