Saturday, October 17, 2015

Wyoming's "Kim Davis" Case

Those Bible-toting Christians in Kentucky are a hardscrabble bunch. Some even risk death clinging to their interpretation of the Bible. For example, snake-handling preacher Jamie Coots of Middlesboro, Kentucky, never backed away from his beliefs despite state laws making snake handling a crime. Last year Jamie died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a church service.

Jamie’s family refused to summon medical care because their Bible said God would take care of Jamie. Who needs doctors when Mark 16:18 is so clear. “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

But Jamie didn’t recover. Jamie died.

Now another Bible-thumping Kentuckian is willing to take her chances. Kim Davis is the County Clerk who decided to convert her little piece of our democracy into a theocracy. The U.S. Supreme Court told her she must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Southern bigots have always viewed Supreme Court edicts as unlawful interference with their way of life. Kim says she doesn’t work for the Supreme Court. She’s in God’s army.

When all of this washes out, Kim Davis may feel about as snake-bit as Jamie Coots.

Wyoming has its own “Kim Davis.” Pinedale’s Municipal Judge Ruth Neely has not been asked to wed people of the same sex. But she gratuitously announced that doing so would violate her beliefs. “When law and religion conflict,” Neely announced, “choices have to be made.”

The two cases pose an interesting challenge for those who must decide whether public officials can refuse to do parts of their jobs when they make a subjective decision that those duties conflict with personally held religious beliefs. The Judge and the County Clerk do not ask that all the marriage rules of the Bible be recognized. After all, where the Bible is more than a little ambiguous about same-sex marriage, Jesus was clear about divorce. Neither the Clerk nor the Judge asks to be excused from being involved in the weddings of divorced people.

The Wyoming Judicial Conduct and Ethics Commission is doing its job. The Commission is investigating Judge Neely’s conduct. You see, there are rules that even judges must follow.

The first Canon of the Wyoming Code of Judicial Conduct says, “A Judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.” The Commission Rules define “impartiality.” Judges must avoid even an appearance of bias or prejudice against parties or classes of parties.

It is arguable that Judge Neely sent a signal to gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people that they are not considered equal under the law. Judge Neely feels she must choose between her interpretation of scripture and her public duties. While she didn’t elaborate, it’s certain that she, like Kim Davis in Kentucky, believes her narrow understanding of what God wants varies from what the law expects of her.

The ethical question is, “Does any gay or lesbian believe she or he can get a fair trial in Judge Neely’s courtroom?” Those whom the good Judge’s Good Book says are “an abomination” may be concerned that this Judge has not avoided “impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.” Any party to a judicial proceeding who happen to be gay or lesbian have a right to be comfortable with the assumption they will be treated impartially.

As a theologian, I find it curious that the scripture is far more certain in its promise to care for the well being of snake handlers than in its rejection of marriages between people in love who happen to share the same sexual orientation. The latter requires a great deal of scriptural interpretive gymnastics.

Christians of good faith may disagree about whether the Bible proscribes same-sex marriage. But that is an entirely religious discourse. Scriptural interpretation is not a part of Clerk Davis or Judge Neely’s job description. Impartial administration of the law is.

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