Anti-Disestablishmentarianism: The Word for Southern Marriage Holdouts
Do kids still joke about learning to spell “anti-disestablishentarianism”?
I used to think it was a fake, something made up, like Mary Poppins’s “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
But no! It was real. And in fact, I just realized that TODAY, for the very first time ever, I can use the term in a piece of factual writing, in its actual meaning.
Because that’s what going on in a few holdouts spots across the American South: fits of Anti-Dis-Establishmentarianism.
Wow. Never thought I’d see the day. Here’s what I mean:
In much of the white south, for a century and more after the Civil War, there was a quasi-established religion, a kind of generic Southern Baptist theology.
It was a civil religion — that is, it included (and blessed) numerous social and even legal practices: racial segregation, for instance.
Segregation was not just “the law,” or the local “way of life”; it was the law AND God’s Will (as slavery had been a divine mandate in the earlier, antebellum version, which was now mostly kept quiet on the shelf). Its gospel was preached from the pulpit as well as enforced formally in the courtroom, or informally by nightrider terror. The exclusion of persons of color from voting was another feature.
White government officials upheld these semi-sacred “values”; one could fill this page with references and quotes, but we ought to be able to stipulate to that. (Good summary here, Baptized In Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, by Charles Wilson Reagan )
Pieces of that civil religion, but by no means all, have been pushed out of the halls of government since the 1960s, back toward the churches from whence they came:
Inter-racial marriage became legal, though Bob Jones University could still denounce it.
Many persons of color won the vote, though born-again southern political strategists are pushing back with paranoid propaganda about waves of godless (Democrat) voter fraud.
Segregation in public accommodations was given up (while re-segregation of public schools has been pursued with almost complete success).
Not all the Old Southern civil religion dealt with race. Homosexuality was another taboo. Homophobic attitudes and laws were challenged much later than racial categories.
But as of June 26, the governmental incarnation of the taboo on same sex relationships has been dethroned. Or more correctly, Dis-Established.
Churches can still teach it, and exclude such couples from their fellowships; but their taboo is no longer public policy.
In a classic sense, the decision was a “game-changer.”
The impact of this Dis-Establishment clearly varies for Southern public officials. Most of them are firmly planted to the the rightward end of Republican shibboleths, where the southern civil religion is — well, a religion — and denounced it reflexively. After all, across the South, there are many public officials who have been able to act, for all their public lives, as if their church norms and public norms were essentially the same.
Even so, most local officials are complying, or preparing to.
Seems to me the few holdouts are simply overwhelmed by the shock of Dis-Establishment, of having to learn to separate public duties and private religion. For many, it’s unpleasant but manageable, like a colonoscopy or a root canal.
For the few, it’s too much to face as yet. I’ve written before of two who resolved the tension by leaving office. Here are examples of those still caught up in it, as glimpsed through press reports.
In Kentucky on Tuesday, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis shut her blinds at work to block the view of rainbow-clad protesters outside. They carried flags and signs saying, “You don’t own marriage” and chanted, “Do your job!”
Moments later, Davis told a lesbian couple who walked in asking for a license to try another county.
“It’s a deep-rooted conviction; my conscience won’t allow me” to grant gay-marriage licenses, Davis told The Associated Press. “It goes against everything I hold dear, everything sacred in my life.”
No doubt; and evidently, until last week her private “sacred” safely dovetailed with her public life.
No more. As the news report continued:
Two things can happen if a Kentucky clerk won’t issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple: They can resign, or go to jail, said Sam Marcosson, a constitutional law professor at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville.
“If it means that you simply cannot fulfill your duties because of your religious beliefs, what is required of you is that you can no longer hold that office,” Marcosson said. “That applies to a judge, that applies to a senator, that applies to anyone who holds public office.”
Clerks and probate judges hold the keys to marriage in counties around the country, and in many rural areas, there are few alternatives for hundreds of miles. Couples turned away could seek a court order, and a clerk who still refuses to issue a license could be jailed for contempt, Marcosson said.
They also risk criminal official misconduct charges, said Warren County Attorney Ann Milliken, president of the Kentucky County Attorneys Association. The misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, is committed when a public servant “refrains from performing a duty imposed upon him by law or clearly inherent in the nature of his office.”
Casey Davis, the Clerk in Casey County, Kentucky, says he won’t resign and he’d rather go to jail than issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. None have yet come in to get one, he said. . . .
Other reluctant Kentucky clerks gave up the fight Tuesday.
Lawrence County Clerk Chris Jobe, who also serves as president of the Kentucky County Clerks Association, told The Courier-Journal in Louisville that he would resume issuing licenses for fear of being removed from office. Several other Kentucky clerks made similar concessions.
Even in Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana, where governors took the most vigorous stands against Friday’s Supreme Court’s ruling, clerks were issuing licenses.
But in Rowan County Kentucky, Kim Davis stayed firm in denying [a license on] Tuesday to April Miller and Karen Roberts, a couple of 11 years who live in Morehead.
To another reporter, Kim Davis referred to five U.S. Supreme Court justices as “five lawyers” who “have imposed their personal view of what the definition of marriage should be on the rest of us. And I, as a Christian, have strong views, too. And I know I don’t stand alone.”
Davis would not say whether she’ll quit her job to stand up for her beliefs, but vowed never to issue a marriage license to a gay couple.
“No man can put a harness on his conscience. That is protected by the Kentucky Constitution, the very Constitution I took an oath to uphold,” she said.
It’s unlikely any of these holdouts will be dragged off to jail soon. There are another three weeks until the Supreme Court decision becomes technically final; they can probably stall for part of that. Thereafter, there will likely be some lawsuits, which they will lose, and eventually some will face official sanctions for failing to perform their official public duties.
[From Associated Press reports, and the Cincinnati Enquirer.]
The office of Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway encouraged any couples who are turned away to seek private counsel. Miller and Roberts contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky to represent them.
“This is where we live; we pay taxes here, we vote here. And we want to get married here,” said Miller.
“God did not elect her, I did,” said Kevin Bass, a former police officer who arrived at the Rowan County courthouse with his wife to support gay couples seeking licenses. “If she objects to doing her job, she can go.”
Now briefly to Texas, where one County Clerk negotiated a path to “Dis-establishment:”
Denton, Texas, County Clerk Juli Luke refused to give marriage licenses to two gay couples on June 26, reported the Denton Record-Chronicle.
Luke said she had to get legal advice from the district attorney and, later, claimed the county needed new software to do the marriage licenses.
Denton County District Attorney Paul Johnson said the gay marriage license was a decision for the clerk’s office to make.
On June 29, Luke gave a third reason why she opposed issuing same-sex marriage licenses, but agreed to do so anyway, noted NBC Dallas-Fort Worth.
Luke said in a statement:
“Same-sex marriage is in contradiction to my faith and belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. However, first and foremost, I took an oath on my family Bible to uphold the law as an elected public official. My personal belief cannot prevent me from issuing the licenses as required.”
Change can be hard. And Dis-Establishment, seeing one’s taboos pushed out of the temple of law, is being very tough for a few.
My own prediction: when the 25 day “grace period” is up, we may see a few more resignations, but likely most of the holdouts will follow Luke’s example.
And if there are holdouts who take their witness to the wail, facing lawsuits or removal, they’ll be pretty much on their own.
By summer’s end, most Anti-Dis-Establishmentarianism will likely be headed back to the fattest of dictionaries; which is where it really belongs.