For all her demagoguery, hate, and law-breaking, Kim Davis is actually a gift: a rabidly anti-gay caricature that is waging an increasingly unwinnable war against equality. Her very radicalism, attracting the right-most members of the Republican presidential candidate circus, is her greatest weakness and one that will ultimately prove beneficial to the reasonable pro-equality argument against donut-holes of religious exemptions to equality laws.
But post-Davis politics aside, her most notable feature is not her extremism, but her loneliness: for every one Kim Davis, there are hundreds of law-abiding citizens, many of them religious, eager to do their part to recognize the commitment to equality embedded in our national culture. They do not get much press attention and yet they represent the vast majority of Americans.
Kim Davis is a caricature. The County Clerk from Rowan County, Kentucky is straight out of central casting for a morose, radical, religious fanatic, from her appearance and countenance, to her hypocrisy and hatred. If the pro-equality community wanted a better foil, it is hard to imagine a better candidate. Ms. Davis is George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse gate, the white bus driver ordering the stately and dignified Rosa Parks to the back of the bus, or the thrice-married hypocrite basking in the privilege into which she was born. And by representing the right wing in the most hateful and obvious way possible, Ms. Davis sheds the sheep’s clothing veneer and reveals the true wolf. Counterintuitively, this makes her less dangerous.
As a creature of the radical right, Kim Davis is the worst way to attract independent and moderate voters to right-wing politicians. Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz don’t seem to care; they want the attention of the increasingly radical Republican primary electorate. But John Kasich, the conservative governor of Ohio and the only adult in the room, gets it: many people, particularly young people, he notes, are turned away from faith and religion when they see it abused and misused in this way. Governor Kasich could just as easily be talking about the Republican Party or about the debate over religious exemptions to equality laws.
In short, Kim Davis is asserting that her religion exempts her from having to comply with a Supreme Court order. Though not government employees like Ms. Davis, a few bakers, florists, and innkeepers have recently made similar arguments against being involved with same-sex weddings. If this debate, which puts religious liberty and equality on a collision course, is defined by Kim Davis and her radicalism, the fight for hearts and minds of moderate Americans just got a lot easier for equality advocates.
She cannot win. Not only is she a monstrous caricature with limited appeal and a poisonous reach, she has no tools or pathway to success. The Supreme Court has spoken. A federal judge, obviously frustrated, is going to force her to follow the law of the land one way or another. She can do that the mature way or the hard way. But other than inciting a rebellion, she has almost zero weapons at her disposal. Though currently out of jail, she has been ordered not to interfere with the issuance of marriage licenses. If she does, there is a spot for her in prison.
Kim Davis doesn’t get it. And she should be in prison, regardless of what today’s poster-child for the anti-gay right has to say. All Americans enjoy religious liberty, to practice their religion without targeted encumbrances by the government. But the religious liberty clause of the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — does not say that one is entitled to a government job while using one’s religious liberty as a weapon to abridge the rights of others. Nor does it say that private business owners that open their businesses up to the public can wield religious liberty as a sword against others they don’t like. Kim Davis and her allies seem to want a bloated religious liberty clause that acts as a get-out-of-jail-free card (no pun intended) for every obligation under the sun. That the Constitution cannot abide.
She is alone. It is hard to wage a war against justice. It’s even harder to do it by yourself. Kim Davis is virtually alone. Although the media have reported on a smattering of other individuals trying to emulate George Wallace (of all people), the vast majority of county clerks and other state and local officials that issue marriage licenses have gone about their work recognizing that their religious liberty does not entitle them to use a civil job to infringe the rights of others. Many of them have been eagerly waiting for the chance to issue marriage licenses to committed gay couples. Some of them may not have supported marriage equality, but recognize love when they see it. A few of them may even be homophobes, but acknowledge they have a job to do.
In the end, that is the real story. Ms. Davis may be loving the attention, but that fame will fade. And when it does, we will go back to the “normal” of almost every other county clerk office, where marriage licenses are being issued to committed gay couples all the time.