On December 1st, 1955, the esteemed civil rights activist Rosa Parks made history by uttering one word: “No.” Changing the course of history can be as simple as one word, and this illustrious example is one of many when those who are oppressed have stood up for what they believe in.
Now, almost exactly 60 years later, a new “hero” has arisen: a 49-year old county clerk from Kentucky, Kim Davis. Davis recently became (in)famous as she refused to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples, which became illegal after the historic Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision.
Conservative activists from around the country, including many presidential candidates, recently rallied in support of the government official’s ostensible act of martyrdom.
But the question should be asked: Is Kim Davis really a martyr?
I will admit, Kim Davis does belong in the story of Rosa Parks. However, the key misunderstanding conservative leaders such as Mike Huckabee tend to employ is the role Davis plays in this modern day scenario. Whereas Rosa Parks stood up for the equal treatment of all individuals, Kim Davis advocates for the exact opposite.
Kim Davis is no Rosa Parks; she is the bus driver who instructed Rosa to go to the back of the bus.
But before we judge the two on their apparently opposite treatment of individuals, it’s important we evaluate their motives. Both Kim Davis and Rosa Parks stood up for what they believed in and they both did what they thought was right.
So, what differentiates the two heroes?
The distinguishing dissimilarity between Parks and Kim is not their intent, but rather their position of authority. Rosa Parks was a private citizen who protested the law she found unjust in a practice of civil disobedience, while Kim Davis is a public official who is tasked with upholding the law. Davis swore to uphold federal, state, and local law. Thus, when she was elected, she became both morally and obligated to uphold the law of the land, regardless of her previous principles. Since the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the United States, and since the Supreme Court has declared gay marriage bans to violate the Constitution, Davis’ defiance—principled or not—is clearly illegal. The punishment given to Kim Davis was not a sign of the “criminalization of Christianity,” but was rather a proper criminalization of… breaking the law.
Whatever her intention, the Democrat-turned-Republican is delegitimizing the case for religious liberty, and worsening the reputation of her faith. Davis’ disobedience is the wrong test case for the protection of religious freedom in the United States. If conservative leaders advocate for enhancing religious freedom by breaking federal law, they automatically lose all credibility and decimate their chances of convincing the American public they are worthy of listening to. By saying Davis’ imprisonment is a sign of religious intolerance rather than upholding the law, Huckabee and others refuse to acknowledge the separation of church and state. There are legitimate concerns facing the infringements of liberties against those who want to live out their convictions in private businesses. By all means, those who want to intertwine their business with their beliefs have every right to do so. But when one enters a contract with a government, they are obligated to uphold that contract and value what that government values.
I commend Kim Davis for being courageous enough to hold true to her convictions and turn a blind eye to the consequences. However, her bravery is illegal. Davis has a right to religious freedom—a right which is of the utmost importance—but she cannot maintain the right to be a government official if she’s unwilling to uphold the law she disagrees with. As Romans 13:1-5 (which I’m sure Davis knows well by now) says, “…it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”
Kim Davis will go down in history. For some, she is the Rosa Parks of the 21st century and for others she is the bus driver. She may be eventually viewed as a martyr for conservatives and the opposite for liberals. But regardless of who Kim Davis is, it is worth remembering: Initiatives for liberty don’t succeed by exalting bad cases. And arguments for ethicality are not won with inapposite historical comparisons.