Civics 101, a brief review

The seemingly never-ending saga of Kim Davis hasn’t dropped out of the news cycle yet. Like so many people I’m getting tired of hearing about it. But, unlike lots of people, as a former US Government teacher, I see it as a teachable moment and if I were still in the classroom we’d be all over this one as a means of displaying how the Constitution works.

One of the best teachable moments in my career was the controversy regarding the showing of John Mapplethorpe’s photographs churchstatein a Cincinnati art museum. It was a great opportunity to talk about the issue of free speech how the courts had interpreted it over the decades. Basically the courts have said that not all speech is protected but offensive speech is. When some tried to prevent the Westboro Baptist Church from spewing their insults about dead American service persons the Supreme Court ruled that even though their actions were offensive we the people aren’t protected from being offended.

In the case of Kim Davis another part of the First Amendment is at question, the right of religious freedom. In this issue the Constitution has two things to say about religion. In what is known as the Exercise Clause the government cannot  tell a person how to worship their God. So, if Kim Davis wants to attend services three times a week that’s her right. If a Muslim prays to Allah five times daily, that’s their right. The government has no say in it as long as it doesn’t violate other established laws.

The second issue involving religious freedom has to do with the Establishment Clause. Government cannot show favoritism towards any religion or non-religion.  The government, including its agents, cannot place a higher value on the rights of Methodists than it places on the rights of Catholics, Pentecostals, Buddhists,  Jews, Muslims, or even atheist. This is the separation of church and state thing you always hear about. Regarding religion the government simply has to stay neutral.

I once carried a wallet certificate stating I was an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church. How I acquired it is a story too long for this ramble. But, when talking about the establishment clause I’d reveal my being a minister and show them my preacher ID card. Someone would always ask what I had to do to become a preacher and my answer was always, “Nothing. You want to be a preacher? Just say you are and you are.” The Methodist may have a formal ordination procedure but that’s them and not the law saying they have to. The law cannot define what a church is or what a person’s version of God is. If you want to worship the oak tree in your back yard, you have a protected right to do so.

It is this establishment clause that Kim Davis runs afoul of. She is an agent of government and she cannot legally allow her religious beliefs to stand in the way of doing her job. Her version of God carries no more weight than that of the gay couple standing before her requesting a marriage license.

She and her supporters insist their rights to freedom of religion are being violated. They have become so entrenched in their beliefs they can neither see nor accept that they still have the same protections, and the same freedoms, before these events ever unfolded.

America is a nation of law and none of us are above the law. There are, however, two sources of law, man’s law and God’s law. What the Constitution attempts to do is keep them separate and at peace. What Kim Davis is fighting for is to force her God’s laws on all of us.

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