There are many objectionable elements to the drama playing out in Kentucky, where a four-time married county clerk, citing her faith, has gone to jail rather than do the job she was elected to and issue marriage certificates recognized as valid by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the most egregious of these objectionable elements come from Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz, whose comments make one wonder exactly what kind of theocracy they would pursue as presidents.
On Thursday, Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, defended Kim Davis, clerk of Rowan County, when a judge sent her to jail for contempt after she refused to comply with his court order that she issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Huckabee said jailing Davis "removes all doubt of the criminalization of Christianity in our country. We must defend religious liberty and never surrender to judicial tyranny. Five, unelected Supreme Court lawyers did not and cannot make law. They can only make rulings. The Supreme Court is not the Supreme branch and it's certainly not the Supreme Being. … This is a reckless, appalling, out-of-control decision that undermines the Constitution of the United States and our fundamental right to religious liberty."
"Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny. Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. This is wrong. This is not America. I stand with Kim Davis. Unequivocally. I stand with every American that the Obama Administration is trying to force to choose between honoring his or her faith or complying with a lawless court opinion."
And, what the heck, let's toss in Rand Paul, too, though he at least sought to carve out a compromise by proposing the licenses be issued by a notary public (Davis argues that her signature on the license violates her faith). Paul, who I should note also thinks the states ought to get out of the marriage licensing business altogether, said it is "absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberties."
Yes, it is. But that's not what's happening here — and Cruz, who was a law clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, especially should know better (and the Obama administration isn't involved in this showdown, which Cruz also knows full well).
The Constitution guarantees religious freedom. It does not give the religious a trump card. The Constitution protects the freedom to believe, and to express that belief, but it does not — and should not — mean that someone's religious convictions outweigh the civil liberties of someone else. Davis' religious faith does not dictate that she become a county clerk; she took on that role because she wanted the job, working for the government. If her faith precludes her from performing the civil duties the job requires, then she should quit.
But the more pressing issue for voters to contemplate is the stances of Huckabee and Cruz, particularly, that an elected political figure (Davis) can deny legal rights to citizens based on her personal beliefs, and that the Supreme Court — as well as orders from lower courts — can be ignored. In fact, they can be ignored — at the penalty of being held in contempt and fined or jailed, which is what happened to Davis. She is not being held because she expressed her faith, but because she refused to obey a court order.
Huckabee, Cruz and, to a lesser extent, Paul misframe this as a stand for religious liberty. By doing so, they give voters legitimate cause to ask what they might do in the Oval Office, with their hands on the levers of power and of war. Would they place their religious beliefs above the law, the people and the oath to "faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and ... to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States?"
As Christians, they may believe they answer to God. But as president, they would answer to the people, and to the system of checks and balances. If they can't do that, they should let voters know now.
Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.