The current flap over refusing service to gay couples goes beyond refusing marriage licenses. One example is Jennifer Schoenrock of Waynesville, Missouri, a court clerk in Pulaski County, who is quoted as saying she will refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples even if the Supreme Court strikes down states’ authority to withhold them. She claims to be a “conscientious objector” (her term) who is merely expressing a right to her own religious freedom. Ms. Schoenrock is only one of many public officials with this point of view. In fact, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court a few months ago instructed county offices to violate a federal court ruling in this way.
Perhaps anyone can see—should they be honest about it—that government officials in their official capacity have no lawful choice but to follow the law of the land. In this case, that includes the rulings of a court of proper jurisdiction. (The Supreme Court certainly qualifies, but so do other federal courts at a lower level and state courts. And there’s normally a simple way to distinguish their relative authority.)
Fundamentalists of the Christian right conveniently miss that point when adamant about pushing their beliefs on everybody else. For example, they not only defend but routinely encourage teachers in public schools to violate court rulings. Their excuse is religious freedom of the teacher (not of the child and his/her family), as if the teacher or coach is not exercising a governmental action. Yes, persons who teach in public schools have freedom of speech; but teachers while being employees of a governmental entity do not.
That seems, despite the strident claims of right wing groups, rather straightforward. The Constitution is clear on the matter. But what about non-governmental organizations, such as pizza parlors, wedding planners, pharmacists, and others operating in the public market? Admittedly this is less obvious, yet the civil rights era made it clear that businesses that present themselves in the public market cannot discriminate against blacks and other protected groups. Argue with the logic of that if you will, but in the United States the matter is well established since around the time former Georgia governor Lester Maddox threatened to use an axe handle to keep his restaurant white. It is a simple extension of that concept to require (if a relevant court or legislation so decides) that pharmacists, say, must fulfill their roles even if they religiously think that a birth control medication will be used for “immoral” purposes.
But thus far I have written as if the fundamentalists’ interest is an honest commitment to freedom of religion. It is a commitment to getting their way and, it seems, they are not constrained by honesty to do so. (Witness their ludicrous predictions that gay marriage rights will force clergy against their beliefs to marry same-sex couples, a claim that is either ignorant or dishonest.) Consider the treatment of school children and the pledge of allegiance to the flag. Schools regularly require students not only to stand for the pledge, but to recite it without omitting the clearly religious words, “under God.” Keep in mind that there are ways for schools to punish or expose to criticism pupils who choose to “misbehave” by refusing to fulfill one requirement or both. Being put in the hall during the pledge or pointing out his or her noncompliance to other students are two common ways.
It is important to point out that as early as 1942 the Supreme Court determined that schools cannot lawfully require students to stand or even to participate in the pledge; doing so unconstitutionally violates their rights of conscience. (It has also ruled on more subtle embarrassments in the case of children.) Yet in 2015 the practice still goes on. What has not yet been legally settled is the “under God” issue in which the pledge—intended as a civil commitment to allegiance, not a religious one—is itself (not the whole pledge, just these two words) a violation of the church/state separation. The original pledge was written by a Baptist minister in 1892. No substantial changes were made until pressures from the Knights of Columbus and a general fear of “godless” communism, the religious words were added by Congress in 1954.
At any rate, the religious right—self-proclaimed defenders of freedom of religion—has made no noise about these Constitutional violations of the rights of our weakest citizens, children. These are the same people who have spread the revisionist idea that the United States was born a Christian nation and the “wall of separation” Jefferson spoke of is a misconception. As the percentage of Americans who are active religionists continues to drop, these attempts by the pious to force their views on everybody else make less and less sense, if indeed they ever did. Perhaps their frantic misrepresentations are the last gasps of a defeated ideology.