Owen: Kentucky clerk misconstrues First Amendment religious rights

The First Amendment notably gives Americans freedom of religion. This right is not only the foundation of our concept of liberty, but it is also an indispensable part of the fabric of American society. Still, religious freedom transforming into religious imposition must be questioned. In what arenas should the “establishment of religion” be completely and intrinsically separated from the throngs of daily American life?

Rowan County clerk Kim Davis was jailed in Kentucky for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The separation of church and state cannot be violated in the space of the public and, under these terms, Davis’ moral agenda does not have a place in the government arena.

Demonstrators surrounded the Carter County Detention Center with “Free Kim Davis” signs, protesting Davis’ incarceration with fervor. Some religious community members see Davis as a martyr and freedom fighter. Many Christians with similar beliefs to Davis view her jailing as unjust.

If Davis were a private sector employee, this would be a different story. She is, however, a clerk—a civil servant and a government employee. And in the public eye, the maintenance of the separation of church and state is vital for the maintenance of American liberty itself.

As a civil servant, Davis made a pledge to follow the laws and the regulations that this important job entails. By law, her job requires that she officiate marriage licenses as a public clerk—not as a member of a religious clergy.

Religion does not infiltrate the qualifications for legal marriage in any way. By refusing to sign marriage licenses, she is breaking the law by attempting to infuse her moral vigor into an arena that should be free of religious influences. Davis should be able to freely practice her religion and express her faith, but not when that expression infringes on the legal rights of others.

In the case of her employment as a United States government employee, she has a duty she must fulfill. If she is opposed to carrying out this duty, there is nothing stopping her from leaving her job in the government and finding employment elsewhere.

The separation between church and state—a system that is so vital to the freedom and liberty of people—is continually under attack. To think that the fight is over would be a misjudgment. The fight is especially pertinent now in the face of new civil rights laws, such as the recent national legalization of same-sex marriage—a ruling that desperately needs protection and enforcement.

In the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” This text created the backdrop of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Jefferson knew that to create a functioning and democratic republic, boundaries needed to exist between the state and faith.

Freedom to practice, freedom to live and freedom to love—they are vital and deeply fragile liberties that must be protected in order for freedom survive.