On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, for defying a judicial order that he believed compromised his own personal religious beliefs concerning the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” As the result of refusing to comply with Judge W.A. Jenkins’ order to stop speaking in the public square, MLK was thrown in the Birmingham Jail. From his cell he penned his famous letter that set the moral context for civil disobedience:
“One may well ask,” said King, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust… 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… Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”
This is a seminal quote that all of us should commit to memory but one sentence specifically bears repeating as we consider the news of this past week: “One… has the moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws…”
As I write this column, Democrat and duly elected Rowan County Clerk, Kim Davis, sits in her own jail cell, not in Birmingham Alabama, but in Ashland, Kentucky. Her crime? She refuses to comply with a judicial order that specifically contravenes the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky; a document which Ms. Davis specifically swore to uphold. She also refuses to compromise the Constitution of the United States of America; another document that she pledged to honor and one that explicitly guarantees her religious freedom. Indeed, Kim Davis finds herself between a rock and a hard place. If she refuses to break her word to the voters who elected her and, likewise, refuses to violate her oath of office, she finds that she must disobey one judge who, with the same hubris and presumption of W.A. Jenkins, has decided he knows better than the people of the very state Ms. Davis swore to represent and the Bible upon which she declared this vow.
Many from the Left and the Right – from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump – are calling for Kim Davis to simply “obey the law or resign her job.” But, what does the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. tell us we should think and do? Perhaps the answer lies in the words of one, who, a generation before Dr. King, recognized that not only do we have “the moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” but also what happens when we don’t:
“First they came for the cake bakers and I said nothing because I wasn’t a baker. Then they came for the wedding photographers and I said nothing because I wasn’t a photographer. Then they came for the Houston pastors and I said nothing because I wasn’t a pastor. Then they came for the County Clerks and I said nothing because I wasn’t a clerk. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak.” –Martin Niemoller [paraphrased]