When religious belief conflicts with the law

In the 1960s and 70s my husband and I considered the war in Vietnam an especially egregious action. Out of a religious conviction that all war is sin we came close to refusing to pay taxes. Our taxes helped finance the war, we reasoned, making us complicit in the sins of our nation. But when, as parents of two young children, we measured the consequences of time in jail, we backed down.

The Quakers and other Peace Churches have a long history of resistance to military service. During the Civil War, Union men could pay commutation money to avoid fighting. Some, however, refused to pay the fees out of principle. They were often sent to prison where they suffered harsh treatment and were accused of being traitors.

Snake handling has been a religious ritual in parts of Appalachia. Appeals that it be protected by the Constitution have failed. Christian Scientists, who out of religious conviction choose not to seek medical care for their children, have been prosecuted.

Well known individuals have faced imprisonment for their unwillingness to give in to the law. When Mohammed Ali claimed his Muslim faith prohibited him from fighting in the Vietnam War, he was convicted of draft evasion. Martin Luther King’s struggle for racial justice, buttressed by his Christian faith, landed him in prison.

Now we have Kim Davis, a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, refusing to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. Her decision is based on religious conviction. Judge David L. Bunning has ordered her to be jailed. Many of her supporters claim our freedom of religion is under attack, that liberal America is out to destroy Christianity.

While I don’t agree with Kim Davis’ decision, I don’t condemn her for obeying God’s law as she understands it. I am more disturbed by those who cry out that our freedom of religion is under threat. There have always been conflicts between religious values and what the government expects of its citizens. Many who find laws in conflict with their conscience have gone to prison rather than comply. Some like my husband and I have faltered in our convictions.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but our government will enforce its laws. Central to resistance, to standing up for what we believe, is a willingness to accept the consequences.

Nancy Werking Poling is author of HAD EVE COME FIRST AND JONAH BEEN A WOMAN and OUT OF THE PUMPKIN SHELL.

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4 thoughts on “When religious belief conflicts with the law

  1. Yes! If we are to be a nation of law, there may be times where law conflicts with our particular faith stance. But indeed, it may cost us. Separation of Church and State means we can’t use our government jobs to bend law to our will. If our conscience says we can’t do a job, we may have to leave it to someone who is able.

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