Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When We Let The "Religious Freedom" Exemption Run Amok, This Is What Happens

The common refrain I have heard from a lot of my (mostly evangelical) Christian brethren regarding debates over marriage equality and access to contraception has been that the religious freedom of Christians to refuse these services needs to be protected by the government.

And, okay, fine.  The pastor of a not-for-profit congregation should be able to choose whose weddings they officiate (as long as those weddings are of consenting, monogamous adults).  But if a pastor is running a wedding chapel for profit, that's a different kettle of fish because now we're talking about regulating commerce, and the Supreme Court has typically (until very recently) taken a pretty wide interpretation of what constitutes commerce.  Same goes for a pharmacy employee who objects to the use of birth control.  You don't like dispensing particular prescribed medications, either don't go into that field or do your job, all of it.

And if we're talking about a county officiant denying a couple a marriage license because that couple is made up of an agnostic and an atheist, then let's have a serious conversation about doing your job.

Because that is exactly what has happened over in Franklin County, Virginia, where a couple of that description was told they had no right to be married by a court-appointed officiant.  And once again, I'm left smacking my palm to my forehead out of what another mean-spirited, legalistic jerk has done in the name of Jesus Christ.

Incredibly, this officiant, Bud Roth, refused to marry Tamar Courtney and Morgan Strong at the county courthouse, even though he is a court-appointed official.  He insisted on marrying them at his church.  Even though that in and of itself constitutes a completely out-of-bounds condition (he's appointed by the court, not by the church.  By the same token, I am ordained by the church, not by the court, so I would never insist on a courthouse wedding to any couple who approached me), but despite the egregious nature of this request, Tamar and Morgan agreed.

But that wasn't enough.  After asking Tamar and Morgan about their religious affiliation, Bud Roth refused to perform the ceremony altogether.  Even though there is nothing in Virginia statutory law that requires a particular profession of religious faith in order to be married in the commonwealth.  Even though any such insistence by a government-appointed officiant (ie, Roth) would constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause prohibiting government preference for a particular exercise of religion (in this case, professing a faith in the Abrahamic God).

And even more incredibly, the judge responsible for appointing Roth, Judge William Alexander (who has since apparently retired), saw nothing wrong with Roth's conduct, even though Roth committed, in my mind as a professional pastor, two extraordinary instances of professional misconduct: insisting on an inappropriate venue and then refusing service on inappropriate grounds.  Judge Alexander's rationale was that there was another court-appointed officiant, and that officiant could have performed the marriage.

Fortunately, this other officiant has indeed married them (reports are the couple was legally married yesterday and will be having a larger ceremony with family and friends in June).  But what if this other officiant had also objected?  What if this other officiant had a family crisis or health emergency or was otherwise indisposed?  Tamar and Morgan would have been denied their rights by their county government on the basis of their religious faith, which is in my mind no different--and equally reprehensible--as denying them rights on the basis of their gender or their race.

That is why--and I do not say this lightly--Franklin County needs to revoke Bud Roth's credentials as a wedding officiant.  He has no business presiding over weddings on behalf of the state if he is going to bring his own agenda to what should be one of the happiest days of any person's life.  His job is to perform weddings for any couples in Franklin County who meet the relevant legal requirements to be married.  And he has communicated via this couple that he is unwilling to perform the entirety of what his job entails.

I don't care what line of work you're in, being unwilling to do your job is a fireable offense for ridiculously, blatantly, painfully obvious reasons.

In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul exhorts the congregation in Thessaly to "aim to live quietly, mind your own business, and and earn your living...That way, you'll behave appropriately toward outsiders and you won't be in need." (CEB)

Bud Roth would do well to heed Paul's instructions, because right now, he is doing exactly zero of those things: he didn't mind his own business in demanding to know a couple's religious affiliation as a condition for marriage, he wasn't living quietly in insisting on the venue of the ceremony, and he wasn't earning his living by refusing a couple a right they had the legal entitlement to receive.

And as this couple was not Christians themselves, Bud Roth wasn't behaving appropriately toward outsiders, either.  Which means to me that he is in fact in need, in a deep spiritual need to understand exactly what God and the state are requiring of him.

And with that, I can drop this off as the latest entry in the sadly always-thickening file of "legalistic, gnat-straining-but-camel-swallowing jerks I've had to disown."

Love God and love people as you want to be loved, y'all.  On these hang the entirety of the law and the prophets.

It's not freaking rocket science.  We just act like it is.

Yours in Christ,

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