Here in central Kentucky, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis took the summer hostage. Since June 26, when the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal, Ms. Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses and, shockingly, kept her government job, claiming that to issue a license to a same-sex couple violates her faith.
My husband and I are not native Kentuckians. We bought a house here in January in order be closer to our kids, to our families in Indiana and Missouri, and in March we loaded our car in northern California and drove 2,400 miles to our new home in rural Kentucky. Our son lives in Lexington and was thrilled. Our daughter, an easy five-hour drive away in Chicago, worried about us moving to a more conservative area. “You’ve been living in liberal California for a decade,” she said, “What if …”
We are liberal. Yet our daughter need not have worried. The day after we closed on the house, my husband went back to work in California and our new neighbors braved 30-degree temperatures to welcome me at a warm fire pit with wine and roasted hotdogs. When I was scheduled to fly here from San Francisco in February to have some work done on the house, neighbors sent texts and emails warning me not to come: there had been so much snow on our winding, hilly road that I might not make it to my house. Then they offered to dig out my snow-piled driveway if I decided to come anyway. Our neighbors, it turns out, are lovely. And I adore them.
When Kim Davis began dominating the local news, we had lived here only three months. Who was this woman? Where was this woman?
Having no idea where we were in relation, I scanned the map the way you might look for one piece of a jigsaw puzzle to find Rowan County. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 ruling, Kentucky Governor Beshear and a federal judge have ordered Davis to comply. She doubled down. I recalled the couple I had just seen on the morning news standing before Ms. Davis. “We’ve been together 17 years,” they said. Davis did not reply. And when asked whose authority she refused them on she had two words, “God’s authority.”
I want to give Davis the benefit of my own doubt—I don’t know her, after all— and yet I wonder if there is a benefit to give. What if you requested a marriage license and the clerk could ask you to detail your sex life, how you go about it in the bedroom? What would you say? How would you say it? What if the clerk disapproves your answer? And what of the separation of church and state? If Davis’s religion is truly in opposition to her government job, she needs to resign. The end.
What of ‘do unto others’ and ‘love they neighbor’ and ‘judge not’?
If Davis believes herself an example of religion in action, she is failing. As biologist Richard Dawkins argued, religion can have the unique capacity to make good people do bad things.
When we decided to make our home here, I expected to become a fan of Kentucky basketball. Go Wildcats! I expected quiet, polite conservatism, and since Rush Limbaugh and I share the same Missouri hometown I am accustomed to defending my liberal views no matter the political climate. Healthy debate, a variety of views, is a good thing, right? What I did not expect is that one rural county clerk could hijack the headlines and dominate the landscape as Kim Davis took her religious—her personal and moral—fight against same-sex marriage to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is where the religious freedom faction loses their argument. Doesn’t religious freedom also include freedom from religion?
Earlier this year a man I just met said, “If you don’t mind my asking, how were you raised, what faith do you practice?” I answered that I do not discuss religion, politics, or sex with people I don’t know.
And yet I consider what might have comprised my long-winded response. I could have said I was raised Catholic and left it at that, but this is barely a half-truth. How to explain to a stranger that my mother was excommunicated when my father left her with a one year-old baby (me) and that for years she sought and could never afford an annulment; that my grandfather, who horrifically abused my grandmother in secret, was so publicly respected and devout that the monsignor himself came weekly to give him communion; that no one in my family went to church. Add the Church’s numerous pedophilia scandals (the most recent, this week, right up the road in Louisville), my belief in marriage equality and my fierce defense of a woman’s right to choose, and this day, I am at a loss.
How to answer the question of one’s belief system in a single sound bite?
What do I believe?
I believe my beliefs are a work in progress.
I believe I am still learning.
I think of those two men in Davis’s office, a couple in love and life for 17 years, requesting a marriage license and my heart breaks at the public shaming they have been forced to endure. And for what? What if these men are lovely and kind? What if they are not? What if they are generous or warm or thoughtful? What if they are the people you would call in the most dire emergency?
Is their gayness the most interesting, the most important, thing about them?
Is my belief system the most interesting thing about me?
As these weeks, these months, have dragged by, I see Kim Davis representing my new home to the world, dominating our morning and evening news, and I want to pull her aside and ask: What does it feel like to have “the” answer? What happened to the basic tenet Love Thy Neighbor? What is it like to be so sure you are right?
Curious as to the thoughts of my fellow Kentuckians, on September 1st I viewed the online quiz offered by WKYT, our local CBS news affiliate. Do you think Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis should resign or continue fighting?
Continue fighting: 32.30%
Issue marriage licenses: 17.62%
I voted. I chose the last option. I want to give Kim Davis a chance.
In refusing to back down, in refusing to resign her government position, in hiring legal counsel and filing documents, Kim Davis has made herself the focus of a years-long fight that has already been fought, and lost.
What, other than more divisiveness, is to be gained?
Rowan County is the same size as my own small Kentucky county. I wonder if Kim Davis has ever considered what might happen if she decided to issue those licenses, to be a good neighbor, to get to know those “outsiders” requesting same-sex marriage licenses instead of filing lawsuits.
In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion wrote, “Time is the school in which we learn.” What if Kim Davis simply said, “I’ve learned something this summer.”
As a new friend here in Kentucky recently said, “Are we required to hold our ground, to hold one view, to believe the same thing all our lives? Can we not grow and learn and reconsider and change our minds?”
What might happen, what might all of us learn about the rigidity in ourselves and our beliefs, if Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis decided—without lawsuit or appeal, without the Governor’s or the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate, without sitting in jail and feeding the fires of divisiveness—to love her gay neighbor?
Would she be vilified and shunned by her church, her community?
Or would she be hailed a local hero?
What if Kim Davis decided to say goodbye to this summer. What if she decided to stop fighting. What if loving her neighbor became the most interesting thing about her.