Figures ranging from St. Thomas More to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. have struggled with the same question: When is a law immoral or unjust? This issue is once more front and center in our political debates as the case of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in Kentucky winds through the legal system. The question is relatively straightforward: Can Ms. Davis claim that a higher moral law allows her to refuse to obey the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage throughout the United States? Indeed, how are we to balance the occasionally conflicting demands of God and government?
The quickest – and I believe most erroneous – response to this situation has been the repeated demand for Ms. Davis to “do her job” or resign because she was put in office to enforce the law of the land and will no longer need to worry about moral jeopardy if she surrenders her position. I would hasten to point out that history is rife with examples of bureaucrats “just doing their jobs” and trampling on the human rights of their citizens. Much of the horror of centuries past was “legal” – and tyrants counted on compliant government officials to carry out their oppressions.
Slavery was once legal in the United States, and those who protested it were lawbreakers. The extermination of Jews and others during the Nazi era was “legal” according to the laws of Germany, and the efficiency of the government officials who carried out that ghastly policy made mass murder possible. Was it a good thing that those individuals “did their jobs” and carried out the law without a second thought? Is robotic obedience a prerequisite for government service – or citizenship?
We cannot, of course, allow everyone to disregard those laws they find inconvenient; we surrender some measure of our individual freedom in order to create a smoothly functioning society. However, there does need to be some recognition that civil and moral laws are not always congruent, and those who choose to deliberately and openly break laws they deem unjust are providing an essential check on the unrestrained power of the state. Those who believe that the “law is the law” should read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and consider that Reverend King was willing to be a “criminal” precisely because he believed that his disobedience of unjust laws was in service to higher principles that secular laws had failed to recognize.
Courts – even Supreme ones – make mistakes. Therefore, whether the stand of a particular government official proves correct or not, perhaps we should be more supportive of those who are willing to protest that which they believe to be wrong. Occasional disobedience of the law might be a necessary precursor to open and spirited dialogue regarding our values. The worst that can happen if someone chooses not to comply is we are all forced to debate the balance between individual conscience and collective responsibilities – which does not seem an overly high price to pay for democracy.