Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who is currently winning the affection of prominent Republican lawmakers for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, has thrust the nation into another round of debate over the legal bounds of religious liberty. It’s a conversation we’ve been having more frequently since the evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby won the right to refuse birth control coverage to thousands of their craft store employees, saying — just as Kim Davis does — that they want to remain faithful to their notion of God’s will while conducting their jobs.
Can your faith ever excuse you from doing your job? It’s a complicated question that I’ve been wrestling with for most of my life.
I don’t share Davis’ right-wing theological views, and I cringe when this brand of Christianity is used to discriminate against LGBT people. Nonetheless, I do empathize with how difficult it can be to balance competing religious and secular responsibilities. I understand exactly what it’s like to grapple with practicing your beliefs while living in a society that largely doesn’t share them.
As a Mennonite raised in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country — a unique cultural experience that many others find charming; the New York Times’ travel section recently described my hometown as a “bucolic setting” that’s “more Instagrammable than ever” — the feeling of being an outsider was instilled in me from a young age.
Mennonites, who have close theological ties to the Amish, belong to what’s known as a “historic peace church” and practice a faith primarily rooted in pacifism. My fellow Mennonites and I believe we are responsible for modeling our own lives after the nonviolence, peacemaking, and social justice that Jesus practiced. We also believe in adult baptism. These early teachings were considered to be quite radical when the Mennonite branch of Christianity was first formed in the 16th century.
Modern Mennonites span the ideological spectrum, but our shared commitment to this radical conception of nonviolence ensures we all know what it’s like to carve out exemptions for our faith. Living in the country with the most military power in the world continually puts U.S. Mennonites at odds with the political and social status quo.
CREDIT: Ad Meskens via Wikimedia Creative Commons
When I was growing up, I didn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance in school to the dismay of some of my teachers. My little brother threw away the plastic weapons that came in his Lego sets, and, at least for a few years, my dad diligently avoided paying the few cents of the telephone tax that helps fund the military. At church, our Sunday School lessons sometimes focused on what we would need to do if the government ever reinstated a mandatory draft; we even got tips about how to gather documents to verify our faith tradition in case we need to convince a draft board to grant us conscientious objector status. (One suggestion: write a statement of faith and mail it to yourself, so the postmark will prove that you’ve really been a Mennonite your whole life.)
And at the very beginning of my professional career, I bumped up against questions about whether I could complete some of my job responsibilities with a clear conscience.
Not too long before I graduated from college, I took a paid internship doing communications work for my professor’s small PR firm. One of the firm’s clients was the Selective Service System. The account involved coming up with a media outreach strategy to encourage low-income and minority communities to register with the agency. (Under the Military Selective Service Act, almost all male U.S. citizens must register once they turn 18 or risk losing out on benefits like college loans and job opportunities in government positions.)
When I first took the internship, I wasn’t exactly sure how I felt about this. I was just helping young men remember to fill out important paperwork, right? But I quickly found that working on a strategy to encourage low-income men of color to put their names on a draft list that describes itself as “a hedge against unforeseen threats” gave me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
My boss was incredibly sensitive from the start: He knew my faith background, and told me that I could be taken off this particular account if I felt uncomfortable. Less than a week into the internship, I took him up on it.
Other employees with faith traditions that fall outside of mainstream American society have confronted these complicated issues, too. A Muslim flight attendant filed a complaint this week because she doesn’t want to be required to serve alcohol to passengers when she’s up in the air. Pharmacists have refused to dispense certain forms of birth control. Pacifist postal workers have objected to processing draft registration forms.
But that doesn’t mean people of faith are totally off the hook, somehow free to hold any job they please. As W. James Antle III, the politics editor of the Washington Examiner, points out, “Religious liberty is essential, but it is not always a get out of jail free card.”
“Opposition to the death penalty is a perfectly legitimate moral position. So is objecting to the use of force. People have the right to act in accordance with those beliefs,” Antle writes in a recent opinion piece published in the Week. “But a death penalty opponent doesn’t have the right to a job as an executioner, and a conscientious objector has no right to a career in the military.”
That’s why, if my professor hadn’t been so accommodating to my pacifist beliefs, my story would have played out very differently than Kim Davis’ ongoing saga. If he had told me that he really needed help on the Selective Service account, and insisted this work was a fundamental aspect of the internship, I would have quit.
Carving out space for individual workers’ religious objections cannot infringe on the rights of the people whom they’ve been tasked to serve. Nonetheless, in our post-Hobby Lobby society, the calculus has recently tipped much too far toward allowing religious individuals to wield their beliefs to diminish the rights of other people. Religious objections among pharmacists, for instance, have contributed to a rise in pharmacies that don’t stock emergency contraception at all, which is clearly a big problem for the Americans who need access to this particular health service. This past spring, Indiana made national headlines for passing a particularly broad “religious liberty” law that ultimately would have allowed businesses to discriminate against serving LGBT people. Now, Kim Davis is arguing that her beliefs should exempt her from authorizing the unions of LGBT couples in a Kentucky county where they have every legal right to get married.
If your faith is clashing with your job in these ways, it’s time for a new line of work.
It’s a pretty simple concept — and one that reveals the true nature of authentically grappling with holding religious beliefs that run counter to the way civil society is organized. As one Quaker explained in a patient blog post criticizing Hobby Lobby’s owners for taking their religious liberty fight all the way to the Supreme Court: “I know firsthand that it can be hard to pass up opportunities that violate your conscience. But that is the price you pay for conscientious objection. If you’re not willing to pay that price, you’re not a Conscientious Objector. Full stop.”
Though right-wing Christians are often quick to call out these sacrifices as proof they’re being discriminated against, this type of compromise from religious folks is routine. When you’re a member of a larger secular society that’s built on laws, taxes, and policies you don’t agree with, you won’t get everything you want all of the time. Members of the historic peace churches have a lot of experience with this. We may have secured the religious exemptions that allow us to avoid participating in U.S. military activity, but our objections to the political system aren’t limited to the threat of being drafted. Mennonites and Quakers don’t particularly like the fact that they continue to indirectly support violence, war, and oppression through their tax dollars, as well as through any other day-to-day activities that help prop up the government.
However, aside from the occasional stand against less than a dollar in telephone taxes, most of us begrudgingly accept this reality. Even the Amish, who have peeled off from modern society in nearly every way specifically to better adhere to their faith, still pay earned income taxes — they don’t pay into Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, but only because they waive the benefits.
Living out your faith doesn’t mean always getting your way without consequence. And, subsequently, it isn’t always easy or comfortable. For instance, some pacifists who absolutely can’t reconcile paying federal taxes with their deeply held beliefs do engage in tax resistance, but at great personal cost to themselves: They intentionally make so little money each year that they don’t owe the IRS anything.
On the other hand, Kim Davis — along with the LGBT opponents who are lining up to support her as a civil rights hero — has a fundamentally shallow understanding of what it means to be a conscientious objector, and one that’s frankly a bit disrespectful to the people of faith who take these issues quite seriously.
Now, those of us who strongly believe in the right to religious objections need to know: Kim Davis, if you simply can’t abide participating in a modern society that allows same-sex couples to get married, it’s time to get serious. What are you willing to give up in return?