Civil Disobedience vs. Lawlessness
July 26th, 2013
In Pennsylvania, as you may know, County Clerk Bruce Hanes has issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Here’s the reaction from NOM, called The Lawlessness of Gay Marriage Activists is on Full Display:
In Pennsylvania, Montgomery County’s Register of Wills (the person who issues marriage licenses) suddenly decided he can ignore Pennsylvania law and give marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The guy claims he did it only after reading Justice Kennedy’s opinion in the Windsor case striking down part of the federal DOMA law, and concluded that gay couples should have the right to marry even though Pennsylvania law defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Kudos to the Office of General Counsel for the Governor for insisting “Individual elected officials cannot pick and choose which laws to enforce,” as their press secretary Nils Hagen-Frederiksen wrote in a released statement. “All officials are constitutionally required to administer and enforce the laws that are enacted by the Legislature.”
The irony is so bright it burns my eyes. NOM has built fundraising efforts on the notion that Town Clerks in New York have the right to “pick and choose which laws to enforce” and to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, as an exercise of their religious freedom.
NOM’s hypocrisy will surprise only those who haven’t been paying attention. But what about our own hypocrisy when we denounce the New York Town Clerks while praising Montgomery County’s Bruce Hanes? Is there a difference?
I think there is.
Civil disobedience has a long and proud history in the US. In its best form, though, it’s not a mere refusal to obey a law. It involves a person publicly breaking an unjust law and accepting the consequences precisely in order to force an examination of that law in the public eye, and if necessary, in court. This is not “lawlessness.” It’s a deliberate attempt to invoke our legal system.
That’s happening right now in Montgomery County. It’s not quite what happened in New York with those Town Clerks. They didn’t do anything to force a re-examination of marriage equality. In fact, they were willing to direct same-sex applicants other Clerks. Unlike Bruce Hanes, they did not say the marriage equality law was invalid; they merely claimed that they personally did not have to obey it.
Now, that’s lawlessness.
Perhaps this isn’t entirely fair. Those Clerks might say they weren’t protesting marriage equality per se, but the laws that force them to sign documents for marriages they personally deem invalid. It’s hard to believe their sincerity, though. They’d have to argue that religious freedom means that government officials can demand you pass their personal religious test before they’ll help you, and that, of course, is the opposite of religious freedom.
I see another difference between New York and Montgomery County, though: Civil disobedience doesn’t usually involve someone using their power to victimize citizens. Civil disobedience doesn’t much involve victims at all — the lack of victims is a sign that the law being disobeyed is unjust! It’s easy to identify by name the victims of the New York Town Clerks. The victims in Montgomery County, not so much.
Before I close, I want to point out something NOM founder Robert George published two days ago on the question of religious freedom:
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., responded in his Letter from Birmingham Jail to those who criticized his program of civil disobedience as mere willful law-breaking:
I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
King turned not inward to his own feelings of being aggrieved by the law, not to the intuitions of his autonomous self, and not even to a claim of his own rights. Instead he turned to “moral responsibility”—to obligation, to duty. He, like Newman, understood this as a duty to principles of justice we did not create, but to which we must respond. As the Declaration of Independence teaches us, prior to any laws made by men are the immutable standards of justice—standards by which we judge whether the laws are just and can rightfully command our obedience.
Robert George, fierce opponent of marriage equality, goes on to identify those standards:
These standards, of the equal dignity of all human persons, of their equal freedom, and of the accountability of government to the people…
As I said above: The irony is so bright it burns.