Since Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk Kim Davis was taken into federal custody Thursday for refusing the Supreme Court’s order to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples (and subsequently released on the condition she not interfere with the issuing of marriage licenses), the religious right has made the Democrat into an icon. Republican presidential candidates are elevating her as the poster child of the Barack Obama administration’s alleged crusade against religious liberty. But by using her government position to force same-sex couples into conforming to her religious beliefs, Davis has instead cast herself as a lasting symbol of bigotry.
This past week, mainstream Republican presidential hopefuls have, by and large, endorsed Davis’ defiant law-breaking. Mike Huckabee, who recently visited her in prison, has devoted his Twitter feed to pro-Davis tweets and even posted a petition on his campaign website urging people to “Free Kim Davis.” Ted Cruz (who also made a visit), Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio have all made statements directly endorsing Davis’ actions. Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum tacitly endorsed the idea of speaking out for religious freedom without directly encouraging defiance of the law. Carly Fiorina and Lindsey Graham were initially the only two candidates defending the Supreme Court’s decision. Donald Trump, to his credit, went from taking no position on Kim Davis to supporting the court’s ruling.
Now that one of the two major parties’ leading candidates has legitimized an elected official’s dereliction of duty, conservative activists are making illogical comparisons between Davis’ closed-minded heel-digging and one of history’s most important figures in the movement for equality. Conservative blogger Matt Barber tweeted, “Ending anti-Christian persecution is the civil rights cause of our time. And #KimDavis is our time’s Rosa Parks.” Bryan Fischer, who leads a podcast for the American Family Association, a non-profit that promotes fundamentalist Christian values, wrote of Davis, “She has been imprisoned in America for the crime of being a Christian. Rosa Parks was jailed in 1955 for the crime of being black.”
While Davis’ actions could be misconstrued as civil disobedience, what separates her from actual civil disobedience leaders is that her actions are rooted in a denial of equality, rather than a push for greater equality. In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King wrote,
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
In refusing the court’s order to recognize same-sex marriage, Davis is no different than Alabama governor George Wallace, who vowed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and defied federal authorities by blocking a doorway to prevent two black University of Alabama students from going to class.
This kind of posturing by both Davis and the top Republican presidential candidates is dangerous, as it legitimizes backward and outdated ways of thinking. Just as Wallace’s stand at the University of Alabama undoubtedly played a role in encouraging Byron De La Beckwith’s assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers the very next day, Davis’ stand is allowing those with hateful beliefs to have a voice to the nation. Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver, who is representing Davis in court, was a recent guest on the Washington Watch podcast, during which he compared Davis’ imprisonment to Nazi persecution of Jews. Just as students in Kentucky are preparing to go back to school, five schools in Carter County, Kentucky, closed on Tuesday for a planned rally to support Davis. One group of ride-or-die Davis supporters has been staging rallies outside the home of federal judge David Bunning, the official who initially ordered Davis to be jailed. But these views are very much in the minority — national support for same-sex marriage rights has never been higher, and that’s consistent among all demographics.
According to Pew research, American support of marriage equality went from 57 percent opposed and 35 in favor in 2001, to 55 percent in favor and 39 percent opposed in 2015. Gallup polls going as far back as 1996 show marriage equality support at 27 percent in favor and 68 percent opposed, compared to 60 percent in favor and 37 percent opposed in May 2015. Even the right-leaning National Journal admits that support for gay marriage is up by at least 30 points among virtually all demographics — the only demographics that doesn’t include are African-Americans (up by 26 points), Southerners (up by 25) and Republicans (up by 21 percent). Davis and her supporters fall into a very vocal minority.
Americans have largely evolved beyond their hatred. While racism remains rampant 50 years after desegregation, racists can no longer deny equal access to public places solely based on the color of someone’s skin. And while homophobic views still pervade much of the rural United States despite the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, same-sex couples in Rowan County, Kentucky, are finally having their marriages recognized. Kim Davis’ era is over. It’s time to impeach her and replace her with a clerk who will do the job without discrimination.