What happens if a clerk doesn't approve of a couple that wants to get married? Can a clerk keep their job and follow their conscience?
Sometimes, disobeying an unjust law can be a good thing — such as when then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004.
But that's different from government officials withholding services from certain citizens, as in the case of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis. Republican presidential candidates are falling all over each other in an attempt to praise Davis's religious fervor. But imagine if the scenario was slightly different: let's say a manager at the DMV refused to issue driver's licenses to women, citing his Muslim faith. How enthusiastic do you suppose the GOP praise would be under those circumstances?
Government employees might want to claim that their religious beliefs should be accommodated, no matter what those beliefs are. But that's not how the Constitution works! The Constitution guarantees free exercise of religion, so a Muslim DMV employee could abstain from driving in her private life. But the Constitution also prohibits the establishment of a state religion, so that employee can't force members of the public to conform to her religious beliefs.
In the case of Davis, a clerk's job is to look at the paperwork of couples who appear before her, and to determine whether they meet the legal criteria for getting married. Clerks are required to evaluate paperwork, not the moral nature of the couple. That's because the state has no interest in the clerk's opinion of every couple that walks through the door. Clerks are free to believe whatever they want, but they can't stop a couple with valid paperwork from marrying.
One of the duties of a government official is to provide everyone with equal treatment. And if their conscience is telling them that they need to treat some people differently, well, maybe it's time they looked for a job that matches their beliefs.
Follow writer Matt Baume on Twitter @mattbaume.