The summer of 2015 was ruled by Kim Davis. You might remember her as the Rowan County, Ky., clerk with a boundless love of ankle-length denim and a passion for denying the LGBTQ community their hard-won civil rights. But for me, Davis offered a glimpse into the true face of America’s war over “religious freedom,” in which equality is disguised as oppression.
I had been covering her crusade of intoleranceand the ensuing lawsuitsfor weeks at Jezebel, where I was a contributor at the time. I convinced my editors to let me fly down to Morehead, Ky., where Davis had taken her last stand, report on the goings-on, and engage in my own bit of activism. I traveled from San Francisco to marry my partner of nearly a decade in a place where we had been explicitly told we were unwelcome by a woman who refused to do something as small as sign a piece of paper.
We arrived at the same time many of Davis’ supporters, shortly after the 52-year-old had served a five-day jail sentence for being in contempt of court. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing marriage equality, she had been told to start issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Instead, Davis locked herself in her office. And while she spent those few uncomfortable nights behind bars, the war outside her cell had reached a fever pitch. Protest signs and vans plastered with anti-gay slogans parked outside the detention center to advocate on her behalf, while think pieces poured in from across the country.
My partner and I wed on the Morehead State University campus only hours after Davis had emerged, vindicated, to a triumphant rally headlined by Mike Huckabee.
For some, Davis has become a folk hero. At her rally, someoneI believe it was Mike Huckabee, but I’ll never be certaindemanded that she be placed on the covers of history books for standing up against the “gay agenda.” For my husband and I, she stood as a relic of hatred that was having its last shining moment in the sun.
We were happy that day. Our first conversation as a married couple wasn’t about the “thank you” notes we’d have to write or where we’d be going on our honeymoon. It was about the relief we felt knowing that the hundreds of people who had poured out of the woodwork in “Kim Wins!” t-shirts were just thathundreds of people. Despite their fervor and their belief that our existence was wrong because their god deemed it as such, their power was undercut by the lawwhich, after years of lobbying, had come to offer protections to the LGBTQ community in both our private lives and in the workplace.
But as we’ve learned in the few short months that the Trump administration has been in power, the biggest component of the president’s plan to “make America great” is to make it straight. The current administration has brought the United States back to a time when minority groups were forced to walk a line drawn by the nation’s most conservative forces. From a ban on transgender troops serving openly in the military to Donald Trump becoming the first sitting president to speak at a yearly conference thrown by an anti-LGBTQ hate group, every day it becomes clearer that the Kim Davises of the world will soon have the power not just to deny us rights. They will be able to legally punish us for drawing breath.
I wish I were speaking in hyperbole, but this is the reality of 2017. Last Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions introduced a “religious liberty” memo that gives government workers immunity if they discriminate against LGBTQ people in the name of faith. The policy was crafted with the help of the Alliance Defending freedom, a virulently anti-LGBTQ organization that has condemned homosexuality as “evil.” The Department of Justice order is the epitome of that word from top to bottom, and one needs only look at the ADF’s track record to know this to be true.
The Washington, D.C.-based firm has helped draft numerous anti-LGBTQ laws across the U.S., including anti-trans bathroom bills in states like North Carolina and Texas. The ADF once defended legislation calling for the sterilization of transgender individuals in Europe. The right-wing organization is currently representing Masterpiece Cakeshop in a forthcoming Supreme Court case after the Colorado bakery refused service to a same-sex couple in 2012. Unsurprisingly, the ADF has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Sessions spoke to the ADF at a closed-door meeting in July. The DOJ declined to release a transcript of the Attorney General’s comments.
But what’s even more pernicious than the fact that the federal government is endorsing willful discrimination against citizens is that Sessions’ memo, while not standing law, sets a harmful and dangerous precedent. It removes the government’s right to question that bigotry.
To put this more simply: The order means no more repercussions for people like Kim Davis. Davis is currently on a nine-day tour to lobby against same-sex marriage in Romania, but she is still employed as a clerk in Rowan County. Should Davis decide that her faith beliefs no longer permit her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, she can refuse without risk of fines or jail time. This means that LGBTQ residents of her countyand counties all around Americacould soon be fighting to have their Constitutional right to marriage recognized.
In essence, the discrimination that the LGBTQ community has fought could be back with a vengeancethis time without any need for defense or explanation.
During my time in Morehead, I interviewed as many of Davis’ supporters as I could; some had come all the way from Alabama and Kansas just to see her beatified. I asked them directly why my right to marriage was such an affront to their sensibilities. No matter if I was asking the woman weeping in front of the county clerk’s office or the man filling his plate next to me at the Hampton Inn’s complimentary breakfast, the answer was always the same: “The Bible says it’s wrong.”
But as I spoke with local residents, I began to hope that Davis was in the minority. Many townspeople lived on a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” basis but had begun to rethink that position in the face of discrimination in their city. No one refused to sell us a wedding cake. Strangers who heard we were getting married came up to hug us in the street.
On the morning after Davis had been released, my husband and I turned in our marriage license at the county clerk’s office. As we were leavingnow officially marrieda man in mirrored sunglasses approached us and said that we were going to hell. “I’m no bigot,” he said. I didn’t hear the rest of that sentence because all of a sudden I felt myself being pulled away. “He was going to hit you,” claimed my brother, who had come to serve as my best man. “He was winding up.” This total stranger wanted to physically assault me just because he felt that my civil rights and his couldn’t coexist.
That’s not religious freedom. It’s tyranny, and this memo is only the beginning. We must fight hatred in the name of faith every step of the way.