So what should religious believers do when their professional obligations conflict with their religious convictions?
Here in California, the media has been all over the story of the county clerks in Kern County and Butte County, who decided to stop performing wedding ceremonies — all wedding ceremonies — as soon as the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage should be legal. (They're still issuing marriage licenses, which they're legally required to do — but they won't perform the ceremonies, which they're not.) So couples of all genders and orientations in those counties who want to get married have to either do it before the cutoff date, find their own officiant, or go outside the county. Even couples who already had wedding appointments are having to either hurriedly change their wedding dates or go elsewhere.
Now, here's where it gets interesting.
Both clerks transparently lie claim that their decision wasn't motivated by an objection to same-sex marriage. They cite expenses/ logistical problems/ staffing issues with the county performing weddings of any kind. And the fact that they decided to cut off weddings at the exact historical moment that same-sex marriage got legalized in their state? Pure coincidence. That's their story, and they're sticking to it. (The Kern County clerk is actually being caught in the lie… but she's still sticking to the story, and otherwise clamming up.)
See, refusing to marry same-sex couples while still marrying opposite-sex couples would be a clear violation of the law. Refusal to perform a task that's part of your government job, simply because you don't personally approve of the people you're doing it for? That's grounds for dismissal. Maybe even grounds for prosecution. So if these county clerks want to stay true to their presumed convictions by refusing to perform same-sex weddings — and at the same time, still keep their jobs — they have to play this weaselly game, refusing to publicly say what they're doing and why, and giving transparently half-assed excuses, even though everyone knows exactly what's going on.
And presumably, they want to keep their jobs.
Compare, please, with this story.
A high school principal in Columbia, S.C., is stepping down from his post after being asked to allow the creation of a gay-straight alliance club at his school.
Irmo High School principal Eddie Walker had a similar conflict between his professional and legal obligations as a public servant, and his personal religious convictions. He had a professional obligation to let the gay-straight alliance club go forward: federal law says that a school can't refuse to allow a club to form simply based on the club's purpose and viewpoint. And he had religious objections to supporting a club of this nature.
So he resigned.
Now. Obviously, I don't agree with his religious beliefs about homosexuality. Obviously, I think his religious beliefs are misinformed at best, ignorant and bigoted and grotesquely out of touch with reality at worst. I don't even need to go there. Insert boilerplate rant.
But at least he had the courage of his convictions.
At least he was willing to make a sacrifice for his convictions.
Isnât that what weâre always saying when peopleâs deeply held religious beliefs conflict with their jobs? Especially when those jobs are in the public sector? When pharmacists donât want to provide birth control because it goes against their religion, for instance, we say, âWell, if youâre not willing to provide a legal drug legally prescribed for someone by their doctor, perhaps you shouldnât be a pharmacist.â When public school teachers donât want to teach evolution and want to teach creationism because of their religious beliefs, we say, âWell, if you feel that way, perhaps you shouldnât be teaching biology in the public schools.â
So when a school principal doesn't want to support a gay/straight alliance in his school — and decides that he therefore should no longer be a principal – it's hard for me to say much about it other than, "Yup. You're right. You shouldn't be a principal." I obviously think that his convictions have a screw loose… but at least he has the courage of them. And at least he's acting in a way that both stands up for his convictions and doesn't shove them down everyone else's throat.
A common trope among Christian theists is, "What would Jesus do?" Personally, I think the Jesus character in the New Testament is an ambiguous figure and in many ways a troubling one, and I certainly wouldn't take every piece of his behavior as a model. But whatever else you may think about him, the dude had the courage of his convictions. He said what he thought. And he was willing to accept consequences — pretty damn harsh consequences — for what he said and thought. Okay, there was a certain amount of, "You said it, I didn't" pussyfooting near the end of the story when he was being interrogated… but for the most part, covering his ass was not a high priority.
And it shouldn't be for the Kern and Butte County Clerks, either.
I'm not even getting into the whole "You shouldn't base your professional decisions on your religious beliefs, because religious beliefs are notoriously resistant to evidence and reason" thing. And I'm also not getting into the whole "Separation of church and state protects you, too, you don't want some clerk refusing to let you register to vote or file the deed to your house because their religion objects" thing.
My point is this:
When your professional obligations conflict with your religious convictions, don't your convictions themselves require you to piss or get off the pot? Don't your convictions themselves call on you to either perform the job you've promised to perform — or stand up and say, "I can't in conscience do this job anymore, so I'm resigning"? Don't your convictions require you to do anything at all other than refuse to perform the public service that the taxpayers are paying you to do, screw up lots of people's lives in the process… and come up with obviously fake, weaselly excuses for why you're doing it?
In which case, knock yourself out.
High school principal story via Friendly Atheist, which is also where I developed part of this piece.