Politics & Policy

Bevin Signs an Executive Order in Kentucky, Resolving the Dispute over Religious Liberty

Kim Davis at the county courthouse in Morehead, Ky., in September. (Ty Wright/Getty)

Newly installed Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin, has issued an executive order removing county clerks’ names from marriage licenses. Readers will remember that this was the main issue that gave rise to the national controversy involving Kim Davis, who believed that signing her name to a same-sex marriage license violated her religious liberty.

According to a report from the Louisville Courier Journal, “Executive Order 2015-048 directs the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives to issue a revised marriage license form to the offices of all Kentucky County Clerks. The name of the County Clerk is no longer required to appear on the form.”

Before taking office, Bevin gave a press conference indicating that he would take such a measure. Bevin’s order is not likely to spark significant protest because, frankly, executive orders of such nature are anodyne. Bevin’s action is as innocuous as taking a name off a form, when the absence of the name in no way changes the binding authority of that form. Moreover, there’s widespread consensus that it would be better for all parties involved to put the matter to rest.

Bevin’s executive action is commendable. It demonstrates that Kim Davis never needed to be jailed; reasonable accommodations were available without the need for excessive action. Former governor Steve Beshear simply failed to act on her behalf. Beshear, the lesser magistrate in the fallout after Obergefell, didn’t attempt any measure to resolve the dispute.

#share#As Russell Moore and I wrote at the time of the controversy:

Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, whose veto of a 2013 Religious Freedom Restoration Act was overturned by the Kentucky legislature, has stood idly by and offered no relief, despite pleas from thousands of Kentuckians who’ve asked him to provide leadership and seek legislative compromise in this conflict. This inaction on the part of the governor represents gross indifference to his duties as governor. Governor Beshear could, and indeed, should, immediately convene a specially called legislative session to resolve this issue that provides accommodations for objecting clerks with the assurance that all legal licenses are lawfully issued.

If Bevin can issue an executive order, Beshear could have as well — a much easier and cheaper method than convening a special session of the legislature.

#related#This executive order will go a long way toward resolving this heated conflict: County clerks such as Kim Davis will have their consciences protected, in that their names will not be on any license granting moral legitimacy to an institution that they believe is immoral, while the lawful issuance of government licenses will continue without disruption. Admittedly, it will take two parties to reach compromise: Kim Davis will need to abide by this policy of removing her name from such documents. Most people of goodwill will accept this as a reasonable and acceptable accommodation. This was not difficult to resolve. I repeat: This was not difficult to resolve. It simply took political de-escalation, and political will coupled with the pursuit of commonsense legal maneuvers. It’s troubling that it took an election to resolve what the former governor should and could have resolved: It was his responsibility, as it would be the responsibility of any governor regardless of political persuasion and regardless of his or her personal views on the moral rightness of same-sex marriage.

This whole incident reminds us that in the long game on religious liberty, the pursuit of reasonable accommodations is the responsibility of every government official and every government body. Let’s hope that Bevin’s smart move puts the issue to rest and sets an example. “Politics is the art of the possible,” as the famous phrase goes. This adage remains true.

— Andrew T. Walker serves as director of policy studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. You can find him on Twitter: @andrewtwalk.

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