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A Tale of Two Martyrs: When Jobs and Beliefs Collide

So what should religious believers do when their professional obligations conflict with their religious convictions?

Kern county
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.)

Justice
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.

Now.

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.

Gay straight alliance
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.

Origin of species
Isn’t that what we’re always saying when people’s deeply held religious beliefs conflict with their jobs? Especially when those jobs are in the public sector? When pharmacists don’t want to provide birth control because it goes against their religion, for instance, we say, “Well, if you’re not willing to provide a legal drug legally prescribed for someone by their doctor, perhaps you shouldn’t be a pharmacist.” When public school teachers don’t want to teach evolution and want to teach creationism because of their religious beliefs, we say, “Well, if you feel that way, perhaps you shouldn’t be teaching biology in the public schools.”

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.

Crucifixion
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?

Weasel
Unless, of course, you belong to the First Church of the Weasel.

In which case, knock yourself out.

High school principal story via Friendly Atheist, which is also where I developed part of this piece.

Comments

  1. Valhar2000 says

    Well, Greta, at the risk of being lambasted by liberal Christians for telling God’s Honest Truth ™: there is no lie on god’s green earth so big that a christian somewhere won’t tell it.

  2. says

    I have refused job interviews once I’ve done further research into what their company stands for. (In most cases they are for-profit insurance companies, an industry that is in essence parasitic.)
    I would hope that instead of performing their jobs to a lesser ability, most others would join me in simply choosing a job that they can do whole-heartedly.

  3. Jon Berger says

    Not that I disagree with your essential point, but one slight difference between the clerk and the principal is that county clerks are elected officials. That sort of changes what “doing their job” means: elected officials are accountable to the electorate, and the electorate gets to weigh in on whether or not they’re doing their job properly every four years, so at some level their actual job is to make the electorate happy. I suspect that that’s what the Kern and Butte County clerks think they’re doing, and they may very well be right. Much as it pains me to defend these folks, I think there’s a case to be made that standing up against a law they strongly disagree with and they think their constituents strongly disagree with IS a demonstration of the courage of their convictions, comparable to the principal quitting. In effect, they’re telling their constituents “Here, look, I’m doing this for you because I believe that you believe that I should. If I’m wrong, vote me out next time. If I’m right, vote me in.” I think the rules really are, and should be, a little different for people who are directly accountable at the ballot box than they are for the pharmacists and the teachers and so forth.

  4. Tracy Canfield says

    I think you’ve cast this issue in a black and white way – “If there’s a conflict between personal religious beliefs and your employer, your employer always wins, and that’s as it should be”. US laws are more nuanced on this point, and I personally prefer the current system to what you seem to be proposing.
    Under federal law, employers must make reasonable accommodations for religious belief. (The world being what it is, “reasonable” usually means “inexpensive”.) That might mean arranging schedules so that Orthodox Jewish employees don’t have to work on the Sabbath (even if employees don’t normally get Saturdays off) or allowing Muslim women whose beliefs require modest clothing to wear scarves (even if they’re not normally part of the employee uniform).
    But “reasonable” is a subjective term, and there’s a continuum from “reasonable” to “unreasonable”. Last year there was a flap about Target allowing Muslim cashiers to ask customers to scan their own pork products – I would have considered that a reasonable accommodation, but after public outcry, Target transferred the cashiers to other jobs within the store. At the other end of the spectrum, an ASL interpreter was fired for refusing to sign the word “damn”, and the courts concluded that her beliefs couldn’t be accommodated because her job was to interpret, not to editorialize.
    And then there’s a gray area in the middle – How expensive does something have to be to be unreasonable? What if the employer proposes one reasonable accommodation, but the employee wants something else? (The employer generally wins that one.)
    If you were just arguing that Kern and Butte Counties shouldn’t be able to stop performing marriages, that this goes far beyond reasonable accommodation, I’d agree with you. But when you say “When your professional obligations conflict with your religious convictions, don’t your convictions themselves require you to piss or get off the pot?”, you seem to be saying something much stronger – that the employee manual is as unchallengeable and unchanging as any sacred text, and that if you don’t like it, you should “make a sacrifice” and “accept the consequences”. Either you stand up and resign, or you’re in “the First Church of the Weasel”. And that’s not a position I can agree with.

  5. paul says

    I think that the SC principal has more in common with these counties than you thought, I’m surprised you didn’t bring it up. The principal is resigning after next year, he hasn’t resigned yet. And in the meantime, the school is deciding whether or not to ban ALL clubs so that it won’t have to allow the GSA club. Kind of like stopping ALL weddings. These people are all the same.

  6. says

    Jon:
    With all due respect, I don’t agree. If the Kern County Clerk had been concerned about the will of the people, I think she would have acted differently. She could have taken a poll, she could have started a ballot initiative. And it’s not like her actions will stop same-sex marriages in Kern County. They just mean that she, personally, doesn’t have to participate in them.
    When you read the details of the news stories about her actions, they don’t look like an elected official trying to act in accordance with the will of the people. They add up to an individual using her position in government to impose her personal prejudices on everyone else.

  7. says

    Tracy: I agree that reasonable accommodations should be made by employers for religious convictions. (Although it does somewhat pose the question: Why should accommodations be made for religious convictions and not any other kind of convictions?) But as you point out, that doesn’t apply in either of these cases.
    I guess I thought that was obvious. But if it wasn’t, I’ll apologize and clarify. In cases where professional obligations and religious convictions conflict, AND where no reasonable compromise or accommodation can be reached, then an employee needs to piss or get off the pot, and not inflict their beliefs on everyone else.
    And my main point still stands. Which is that the actions of these county clerks is totally weaselly. They’re supposedly trying to stand up for their convictions, but they’re doing so in a dishonest and cowardly way, telling transparent lies about their motivations and refusing to accept any personal risk or consequence for their actions. That’s not part of any religious convictions I know about (except maybe the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition).

  8. Leonb says

    Good one, Greta. I was in an analogous position once. I was a serious, committed vegetarian (for ethical reasons), and really needed a summer job (I was in college), so I took what I could get: I worked for Arby’s. Not only that, but my job was to be the one making the roast beef sandwiches. (For anyone not familiar with Arby’s, that’s just about all they sell.)
    So, what does a committed vegetarian do when he’s supposed to make roast beef sandwiches for the business? I kept my mouth shut and made sandwiches.

  9. says

    Hello! I’ve been reading (and mostly agreeing with) your blog for several months now. I haven’t really felt compelled to comment (though I have linked to specific posts in various ways) so far. Today is different. Mostly because I wanted to commend you for not bashing (not that you do that in the normal course of things) Eddie Walker-the-person while still disagreeing with his religious views.
    I can personally appreciate that because I know Mr. Walker. He was my elementary school principal and he’s been a friend of my family for many years. I’ve read too many ‘news’ stories and other opinion pieces that don’t agree with him and proceed to completely belittle him-as-a-person, when they don’t know him at all.
    Not that I agree with his views; I’m an atheist myself. And when I found out about this whole controversy, it shook me a bit. I’m used to thinking of him as a pillar of strength and enthusiastic encouragement for everyone. After he became principal of Irmo High, I overheard some theatre kids talking about how nice it was that their new principal was involved enough and cared enough to attend almost all of their shows.
    But, he’s just a man. It’s rather sad when someone you respect (even if you used to make fun of his big booming voice and ubiquitous eager handshakes) goes down quite a few notches in your head. I can admire his standing by his convictions, though, even while completely not agreeing with those convictions.
    Yes, he’s resigning. And, it’s true he’s not resigning right away. (As paul said in an earlier comment.) He can’t – he’s contractually bound to serve out his term. It’s possible that he and his employers will come to an amicable parting arrangement, but they do need to find a new principal. And no one that I know seriously believes that there’s any way he could ban all school clubs.
    Mainly, though, I wanted to thank you for (yet another) well-thought out piece of writing, especially since it hits so close to home for me.

  10. Leon says

    I kept my mouth shut and made sandwiches.
    And presumably ate a lot of potato-based foods on your meal breaks!

    Why yes, as a matter of fact. I made whoppin’ big baked potatoes with extra extra cheese. But that wasn’t in protest or anything–just personal greed and opportunism. ;)

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