Sunday, September 20, 2015

On doing your job

Rogue Valley Roasting Co.
Iced Americano
Vegan Pumpkin Bread

There have been a number of "Do your job"-themed memes lately directed at county clerk Kim Davis for refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples.  And while some of them are genuinely amusing (I particularly liked the "Clerks" one), I get a little uneasy with the message.  I do believe that she should be doing what her job requires here, but I feel the need to clarify and expand that conclusion a little bit.

The reason I get squirmy here is that "do your job" is too simplistic and, in other contexts, is the absolute wrong thing to do.  When officers of the government, be they in military or in law enforcement, are told to do something that violates the constitution or international law, they are obligated to refuse to do so or they can, and should, be held accountable.  They can't say, "I was just doing my job," when their job entails torture or unlawful detention or other violations.  They are responsible for carrying out the order.  Further, they are supposed to be protected when they speak out and refuse to carry out what they believe to be an unlawful command.  Obviously, there are a great many people who did their job when they should have refused and were never held accountable (though I wouldn't necessarily go after them more than the ones issuing the orders).  Likewise, there are some who did refuse to be complicit in the illegalities, some who should have been protected as whistle-blowers, and were punished anyway.

But what about when something has been deemed legal, by the legislature or even the judiciary, that someone believes should be illegal?  What are their obligations then?  This is not as clear-cut an answer.

We all want to believe that we would have been running the Underground Railroad if we were living back in the day, that we would have defied any law requiring us to comply with slavery.  Clearly, some of us wouldn't have, had we been born and raised under that zeitgeist.  Nonetheless, we generally agree, today, that the abolitionists were in the right, and posthumously support any instance of their defiance.  We would surely not have said, "Do your job," to any government grunt involved in returning an escaped slave to their "owner."

But Kim Davis is no abolitionist, and she's certainly no persecuted Christian martyr.

Where we can clearly see that a once-legal institution that deprived people of life, liberty, and any chance in Hell of pursuing happiness, could not persist as being consistent with the founding principles of the Constitution, and should therefore be defied, we can't say that about everything we disagree with.  Slavery killed people.  Slavery stole their liberty.  That's pretty clear and reasonable criteria for disobeying the laws that upheld it.  But look at the defiance of laws that gave freedom to those once-enslaved.  For some people, it was evident that enfranchisement of these "obviously inferior" people was damaging to society as a whole, so they used whatever means they saw fit to prevent these laws from being implemented.  Some even quoted their deeply held religious beliefs to justify that defiance and obstruction.  "God's law" was ever superior to man's law, and that gave them the right to break man's law.

Sound familiar?

It's easy to vilify segregationists after the fact, but we should never doubt their sincerity.  So many monstrous things are done by people who fully believe they are doing what is morally right.  Some people know they are evil bastards.  Most seem to think they are destined for statues or sainthood.  Frankly, Kim Davis might be as much as a footnote someday, no matter how much of a political prop she is at the moment.

And I want to take a moment to say that I don't repeat her name to vilify her or call her a bigot, no matter what her actions show her to be.  My sense is that she is another one of those people who doesn't necessarily carry around a hateful heart, but whose actions are hateful and cause a great deal of harm to people who have been made to suffer too much already.  I think she is what happens to those otherwise good people who try to make their worldview conform to someone else's interpretations of someone else's stories about someone else's supposed actions, all of which occurred in an entirely different time, place, and context.  She is fortunate that those interpretations have changed already, otherwise she would not have been able to be divorced three times, nor to speak in public about religious matters, nor to be elected to public office.  Among other things.

To get back to disobeying the law...  It's hard to set a definitive criteria.  We can generally agree that laws that go against the basics - life, liberty, etc - should be defied in some way or other.  And we do have the right to peaceful protest, to petition the government for a redress of grievances, all that, without the risk of losing our own life or liberty or job (so long as we follow the established protocol, get our proper permits, and whatnot).  Beyond that, if we deem the laws to be so egregious that they require greater acts of civil disobedience, there may well be consequence.  That's Thoreau's Dilemma - do I pay my war taxes or go to jail?  But that remains between you and the State to square.  The problem comes when your act of conscience infringes on another citizen's rights.

When a Muslim airline attendant discovered that she was expressly forbidden by her religion, not just from imbibing alcohol, but from selling it, she approached her employer about reaching some kind of compromise.  Since other attendants were available to serve alcohol, they agreed that she would not be required to do so as part of her job.  However, a coworker decided to complain that this wasn't fair.  The company decided to fire the Muslim woman and she is now suing.  I believe the law is on her side, because her inability to serve alcohol, 1) could have been successfully accommodated without causing an unreasonable increase or change in the duties of any other employee, 2) was an act she was expressly forbidden from performing, 3) was not directed at any customer through discriminatory bias, and 4) would not have impacted the rights of any customer to receive equal accommodations from the airline.

Here's why the same is not true of county clerks or bakers.  The Muslim woman above was prohibited from performing a particular act - serving alcohol, which was only one task she was expected to perform as a flight attendant, and, thus, easy to work around.  Had she been a bartender who had then converted, she wouldn't really have a case.  Serving alcohol is the whole job, so not serving alcohol cannot be accommodated.  Bakers are not prohibited from baking cakes, under any religious doctrine.  They are prohibited from establishing a public business, then refusing to serve members of the public cake because they are feeling all judgey because those people wear make-up and don't cover their hair and the baker's sincerely held religious beliefs say that that is wrong.  Too bad.  If you serve the public, you serve the public.  Conformity to your religious values is not a requisite for service.  It doesn't matter if the customer plans to use the icing for eye-shadow, you don't get to single them out because you think your god doesn't like them.  The law is there to protect them from that kind of discrimination, just as it would protect you from whatever their religious beliefs might be.

As for the county clerk, you don't get to pull the Religion card either.  Issuing a marriage license is civil act, not a personal or religious endorsement.  A clerk is acting on behalf of the government and carrying out the laws of that government.  They are simply acknowledging that the petitioners have met the criteria set forth by the government to form a legal marriage.  The clerk's beliefs are not involved in that act.  Nor is the act of processing paperwork expressly forbidden in any Bible I can think of.  It doesn't matter that what the government considers to be a valid marriage isn't what the individual clerk considers to be a valid marriage in the eyes of their religion, their god.  That's between the couple and who- or whatever is there to meet them in the afterlife.  The clerk simply has to acknowledge that we live in a country where everyone has a right to their own beliefs and, as she wants her country to protect her right to each of her marriages - to not question their religious consistency with the written texts, or their conformity to the beliefs of the clerk who happens to be issuing her documents - if she is acting in the capacity of representing the government, she must protect the rights of every citizen to their own marriage.

If she believed that same-sex marriages were inherently unconstitutional for some legal inconsistency, she would be protected in holding protest signs and writing letters and petitioning for change.  If she refused to issue those marriage licenses, however, that's an act of obstruction and not simply protest, and, thus, not protected.  And since the act of issuing a marriage license does not cause the clerk to deprive someone of their life, liberty, or ability to pursue happiness, there's no moral case to be made, either.  Refusing to issue the license, however, does cause real harm, both mentally and financially, at least.

If Kim Davis can't get past the erroneous conclusion that allowing other people to have their own legal protections somehow makes her complicit in their perceived moral trespasses, then she has to leave her job.  Her beliefs cannot be accommodated here, nor should they be.  Her Oath of Office requires her to uphold the law - man's law - and uphold it equally, without discrimination.  She is failing to uphold her Oath of Office, selectively, based on a religious prohibition which does not exist and couldn't legally be accommodated anyway.  If she doesn't get that and continues to break the law, then there should be some kind of legal process to remove her from her office.  She is breaking the law, and obstructing others from exercising a right that harms no one.

As an ordained Methodist minister, my late grandfather officiated many marriages.  He managed to get most of the family, though he had to get my dad the second time around since my parents eloped as youngsters.  He also performed my marriage five years ago, despite the fact that my husband and I are both agnostic.  We discussed it all beforehand.  My grandfather felt that his authority to perform the ceremony came from the church, but we felt it would be disingenuous to make our vows in the name of a deity we didn't believe in.  So he found the language that we all felt satisfied our beliefs, consistent with the spirit of, well, the Spirit.  He still blessed us with a prayer, and we took no offense to the benediction, but God was not invoked in the actual vows.

During his visit here, my grandfather, the reverend, also made a point of informing us that he totally supported legalizing gay marriage.  And he couldn't understand why his church had to waste three days of their convention talking about how much they didn't support it - oy!

This whole thing is a pretty clear case of "render unto Caesar" because, even if you don't agree with gay marriage, it causes no one harm on this earthly plain, and allowing it to exist, unobstructed, alongside other marriages does not make you a party to it.  And, remember, if God is going to damn someone to Hell for any particular offense, that's His prerogative.  If I remember correctly, "Vengeance is Mine," says the Lord.  And, chances are, God is not so prejudiced as the people claiming to act on His behalf.

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