"To me," she said in a statement, "this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God's word. It is a matter of religious liberty."
It's telling that Kim Davis chose those words to defend herself last week. Davis, the clerk of Rowan County, a rural, impoverished and previously obscure patch of northeastern Kentucky, made international headlines for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She had, should it need saying, not a legal leg to stand on, the Supreme Court having ruled in June that states may not bar such couples from marrying. On Thursday, Davis was jailed for contempt. The thrice-divorced clerk had said she was acting upon "God's authority" and fighting for "religious liberty."
The political right has long had a genius for wrapping noxious notions in code that sounds benign and even noble. The "Patriot Act," "family values," and "right to work." are fruits of that genius. "Religious liberty" is poised to become their latest masterpiece, the "states' rights" of the battle for a more homophobic America.
A few months ago, you will recall, "religious liberty" was claimed as the rationale for failed laws in Indiana and Arkansas that would have empowered businesses to refuse service to gay people. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that Georgia lawmakers will introduce a new "religious liberty" bill there next year. Last week, Mike Huckabee praised Davis for "standing strong for religious liberty." Chris Christie, while conceding the need to obey the law, spoke of the need to "protect religious liberty,"
As if religious liberty were seriously in danger in one of the most religiously tolerant nations on Earth.
Of course, like all good code, this one hides its true meaning in the banality of its words. Most of us would likely support the right of Native Americans to ingest peyote in their religious rituals, or Jewish or Muslim inmates to grow beards. Some of us even believe no religious order can be required to ordain a woman, admit a congregant of a proscribed race or, yes, perform a same-sex marriage. We understand a core American principle that, within certain broad parameters, one's right to practice one's faith as one pleases is inviolable.
But "religious liberty" as defined by Davis and her supporters is about what happens in the wide world beyond those parameters, about whether there exists a right to deny ordinary, customary service and claim a religious basis for doing so. And there does not.
Davis is wrong for the same reasons Muslim cabbies in Minneapolis-St. Paul were wrong some years ago when they claimed a right to not carry passengers who had alcohol on them and Christian pharmacists were wrong when they claimed a right not to fill birth control prescriptions. You have a right to your religious conscience. You do not have a right to impose your conscience upon other people.
And if conscience impinges that heavily upon your business or your job, the solution is simple: Sell the business or quit the job. Otherwise, serve your customers and keep your conscience out of their affairs.
Taken to its logical conclusion, it is not just gay men and lesbians who are threatened by the "religious liberty" movement, but all of us. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that most of us probably run afoul of somebody's reading of their religion in some way or another? Who would welcome a future where you couldn't just enter a place and expect service but, rather, must read the signs to determine if it caters to people of your sexual orientation, marital status, religion or race?
We tried something like that once. It didn't work.
Sadly, if people like Kim Davis have their way, we may be required to try it again. They call it "religious liberty."
It looks like intolerance from here.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald.