Opinion

Let's treat Kim Davis better than she treats gay couples

Supporters of gay marriage should not revel in the Kentucky clerk's legal troubles

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis' refusal to issue marriage certificates to gay couples in Kentucky was a sad curiosity. I felt bad for the gay couples and embarrassed for Davis.

And then, after federal judge David Bunning threw Davis in jail, I felt angry.

To be clear: I wasn't angry because I knew the judge's ruthless over-reaction would almost certainly breathe new life into the moribund movement to use the law to treat gays unequally. No, what really made me angry was the assumption by Bunning that the government best enforces marriage laws at the point of its gun.

The state has a monopoly on force and violence. You don't need to be a libertarian to realize that the government's extreme powers must be exercised very carefully. The same impulse prefigures the argument in favor of criminal justice reform more generally.

I find the government's conduct more offensive to my sense of justice than I do Davis' refusal to comply with the law. And I say this as a dude who had to wait years to marry another dude.

In any moral universe, her crime should not justify a total deprivation of her civil rights.

The only real compelling government interest I can see is that a lack of sanction for her refusal to issue marriage certificates might encourage others to nullify the law. But that interest is best served by administrative penalties, like fines.

Her conduct may be illegal and hurtful. But it is not harmful.

I want the law to make that distinction. And if the law doesn't, because a crime is a crime is a crime, I think those of us who recognize the difference should lead the way and argue that making the distinction serves the cause of justice.

A lust for vengeance deprived Kim Davis of her freedom rapidly and comprehensively. And no, her refusal to recognize gay marriage rights is not nearly as offensive as what was done to her. Her clerk issued the marriage licenses she refused to issue. The context matters, as does the actual harm done by her to gay people, which, really, isn't that much.

What made me steaming mad was the delight expressed by many of my own fellow travelers at her imprisonment. We bathed in the glory of her personal life, too. That's offensive. Her personal life has no relevance at all to the issue at hand. And no, she did not invite such scrutiny by taking a public stand against gay marriage. All that matters is her conduct in office.

Those on the side of what's right should never revel in the pain of others. Gays and our allies are in the right. Now, let us set an example for how to treat those who are not.

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