Civil disobedience has been making news lately, thanks to Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky recently jailed after denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Regardless of one’s personal views of Davis or same-sex marriage, there’s no denying that the clerk’s actions are a classic case of civil disobedience — to a point — as described in Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay.
Thoreau wrote his treatise, originally titled Resistance to Civil Government, in 1849 following a one-night imprisonment for refusing to pay his poll tax. It was Thoreau’s way of protesting state-sanctioned slavery and war.
Thoreau’s suggestion? Break an appropriate law to demonstrate your moral beliefs.
“Under a government which imprisons unjustly [through slavery], the true place for a just man is also a prison,” he wrote.
Thoreau’s powerful words withstood the test of time and influenced heroic figures of the 20th century.
“I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay,” explained Mahatma Gandhi. “Until I read that essay I never found a suitable English translation for my Indian word Satyagraha . . . Thoreau’s ideas greatly influenced my movement [to oppose British rule] in India.”
A half-century later, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.”
He added, “Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all’.”
Enter Kim Davis. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 earlier this year in Obergefell v. Hodges that the “Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex,” noting it is “demeaning to lock same-sex couples out of a central institution of the Nation’s society.”
Davis would have none of it. In her role as county clerk, she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“It’s a deep-rooted conviction; my conscience won’t allow me,” she said. “It goes against everything I hold dear, everything sacred in my life.”
As a member of an Apostolic church, Davis explained that she “believes the Bible is ‘God’s holy word’ and that it defines marriage as strictly between one man and one woman.”
So she practiced civil disobedience by refusing to honor the Supreme Court decision. Consequently, she landed in jail.
Henry David Thoreau would be proud.
Certain politicians, however, felt that putting Davis in jail was wrong. Mike Huckabee, Republican candidate for President, stood by Davis, saying, “If somebody needs to go to jail, I’m willing to go in her place.”
Fellow Republican candidate Ted Cruz added, “Praise God that Kim Davis is being released. It was an outrage that she was imprisoned for six days for living according to her Christian faith.”
Thoreau would disagree with these politicians who seem more interested in pandering to voters. The simple fact is this: Kim Davis, acting on her conscience, broke a law and ended up in jail — precisely what Thoreau meant by civil disobedience.
“It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State [jail time], then it would to obey [the law],” he wrote. “I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.”
Upon her return to work, Davis maintained her position: “Effective immediately, and until an accommodation is provided, by those with the authority to provide it, any marriage license issued by my office will not be issued or authorized by me.”
She added, “I am here before you this morning with a seemingly impossible choice, which I do not wish on any of my fellow Americans — my conscience or my freedom. My conscience or my ability to serve the people that I love. Obey God or a directive that forces me to disobey God.”
As a devout Christian, Davis should understand that life is full of “impossible choices.” But until she embraces that fact and makes a definitive decision — no matter how “impossible” — her actions will no longer demonstrate true civil disobedience as embodied by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Henry David Thoreau.
If Thoreau were still around, he might offer Davis a third choice that has seemingly escaped her: “If a tax gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, ‘What shall I do?’ my answer is, ‘If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.’”
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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