Brookins Head Shot*What does religious freedom mean?

This is the central question that has determined how the country evolved on the issue of marriage equality. Some Christians would have us believe that religious freedom means that only their interpretation of Christianity is valid. Ergo homosexuals should not be able to get married because it violates their sensibilities. The problem is that other religious people could and have argued that homosexuals should be able to get married with the exact same rationale.

The idea of religious freedom is a concept that some, mostly conservative, Christians have trouble understanding. The constitutional guarantee of religious freedom does not mean privileging one religion over the others. Rather it means that no religion will be placed at a disadvantage with respect to the others. The confusion comes from the history of our country in which most people have professed Christianity in some form and there were some common understandings amongst all those Christians. In the 20th century Christianity became more diverse so the understandings that religious people had in common went by the wayside; other religions became more popular so a Christian perspective had competition; lastly atheism and agnosticism became more mainstream so even religion as a basis for societal norms was less important.

In this context contemporary American society grapples with marriage equality. And it seems to those who use religion to justify prohibiting marriage equality like they are being persecuted because their religious beliefs are not being honored. But if we look at this not through the lens of religious understanding, but through the lens of society either granting or not granting a civil liberty to a citizen the idea of marriage equality is a simple question. And to be sure this is how society should view such questions specifically because of the idea of religious freedom. As soon society (as in Rowan County in Kentucky where Kim Davis works) starts to view things from the perspective of one religion then all of the other religions are in trouble. This wasn’t evident throughout the history of our country because there wasn’t enough different religious (or atheistic viewpoints) to create a problem. But in contemporary society for a country or a city or a state to decide things from a specific religious viewpoint is easily seen as a problem.

Keep in mind that I have tried to speak in generalities. But to be clear some denominations of Christianity come down on different sides of this issue. Catholics promote a prohibition against gay people getting married while Episcopals defend gay marriage. Religious freedom is not having society privilege either group.

On some level I feel for Kim Davis. She surely did not expect that when she took this job that one day she would be asked to issue licenses for homosexual couples. Perhaps such knowledge would have inspired her pursue a different career path. Having said that though, it is not feasible for society to employ people who do not follow its directives. Clearly the army cannot have soldiers who refuse to shoot at the enemy; clearly an office of child welfare cannot employ people who refuse to make home visits to investigate child abuse; and clearly Rowan County cannot employ someone who refuses to fulfill their job function. Marriage equality is a major change in society but if it is going to be implemented it cannot be at the whim of individual clerks and offices. A right that can be denied is not really a right.

I wish Kim Davis all the best. Her outspokenness on this topic should translate into job offers from conservative Christian groups so she will not be destitute. But she needs to start looking into those opportunities because she no longer belongs as a country clerk.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.