Saint Thomas More gave up his life rather than disobey God in his service to England and its king. Even so, he believed that man's laws cannot be cast aside, not even in the pursuit of righteousness, without terrible consequences.
The famous speech that author Robert Bolt put in his mouth in A Man for All Seasons — about the error of cutting down human laws to catch the devil — reflects More's real-life commitment to the rule of law, which Americans have since inherited. "This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man's laws, not God's," the fictional More remarks. "And if you cut them down ... do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"
More's words echo amid today's controversy in Kentucky. In response to the Supreme Court's Obergefell ruling forcing the redefinition of marriage in all 50 states, elected county clerk Kim Davis stopped issuing all marriage licenses. To anyone. After defying a federal court order to do her job or resign, she was jailed on the charge of contempt.
Davis has been held up by some as a prisoner of conscience. She might be that, but it is a bridge too far to argue that she has a leg to stand on legally. This is not the case of a private citizen refusing to bake a wedding cake, but of a public official essentially banning civil marriage in her county.
Davis could be compared to any bureaucrat who, citing personal beliefs, would refuse to issue gun or hunting licenses to which citizens are legally entitled. Or to Lois Lerner, the liberal IRS bureaucrat who refused to approve conservative non-profit applicants because she similarly disagreed with a Supreme Court decision. Conservatives, rightly displeased by Lerner's malfeasance, should not create new standards for public officials that would condone such behavior.
To be sure, Davis has been viciously and unjustly maligned by the press. Her four marriages have been held up as evidence of hypocrisy, without mention that her conversion to the Christian faith that motivates her actions now came only recently. And there should have been more effort to resolve this situation in a way that didn't require her imprisonment.
Yet none of this gives her actions the color of law. Nor even does the fact that other public officials who have similarly violated the law — including sanctuary-city officials and clerks who illegally issued licenses for same-sex marriages in the past — were given light treatment because their causes were considered more politically correct.
It also must be added that no one who engages in true civil disobedience can presume to avoid punishment. This is how civil disobedience works. If there are thousands of Kim Davises ready to go to clog America's jails for their beliefs, they might change the world, as other civil disobeyers have. But the trip to jail is part of that package.
Moreover, civil disobedience is properly the tool of the citizenry, not of those entrusted by it to execute the law faithfully. There exist exceedingly rare circumstances in which public officials can and should resist rightful authority that is exercised wrongly. But to condone official lawbreaking as a routine matter, whenever any individual bureaucrat's conscience dictates, entails the acceptance of consequences that no good citizen can accept.
At the heart of this issue is the the rule of law, America's greatest national treasure. From the rule of law, America derives her political stability and economic prosperity. It is the guardian of her citizens' rights and the guarantor that any temporary injustice can be made right without violence. America can survive unjust laws and official injustices, but it cannot survive every minor public official becoming a law unto himself.
Davis' sympathizers might have a point when they argue that mushy, nonsensical rulings, like the one that forced same-sex marriage on all 50 states, undermine respect for the rule of law. But they miscalculate badly in asserting a legal right to "undermine it back."