2015-06-30 – Forty-some years ago, as the Vietnam War was still raging, I had a decision to make: would I apply for conscientious objector status or leave the country rather than fight in a war that violated my deeply held beliefs?
I thought of that today as I read stories of evangelical Christians who work for county agencies that issue marriage licenses and are distressed that they might have to issue licenses to same-sex couples as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Friday that such couple have a right to those licenses.
It may seem peculiar to compare my thoughts about being a conscientious objector with theirs. I was objecting to the idea that my country would order me to kill another human being. And honestly the decision had particular urgency because my country was potentially asking me to give up my own life. Folks who balk at issuing marriage licenses to gay or lesbian couples are being asked only to issue a piece of paper in exchange for a small application fee. No murdering is required.
But this is religion we are talking about. These folks believe that they are being asked to give up their own lives—their afterlives. I don’t get it. But this is what they believe. They should be entitled to refuse, just as I had a right to refuse to go to war.
HOWEVER . . .
Conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War had no effect on the conduct of the war. They only exempted themselves. The war machine just drafted someone else. Governments continue their operations, even if they allow people to exempt themselves from their duty.
The Supreme Court’s order on same-sex marriage is primarily directed to governmental entities: states and their subdivisions. They are required to issue the marriage licenses. If the states want to allow employees to opt out of this duty, they are going to have to do it in a way that does not burden citizen’s rights to obtain marriage licenses. This could mean that states will have to increase their staffing to accommodate the opt-outs. Or it could mean that people with these beliefs simply will have to work other jobs—as the war conscientious objectors did.
Forty-some years ago, I was spared having to make the decision because the war was winding down during my last year of college. My draft number was 125. Although Selective Service had called numbers past 125 in previous years, it wasn’t happening in 1972 so I didn’t renew my student deferment and, at the end of the year I was reclassified from 1-A to 1-H, which effectively meant that I would never be called—that I would never have to make the decision.
For all those who are considering whether they can conscientiously comply with the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling, I wish the same thing for you. The war is winding down.
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There is a Yiddish saying:
Don’t be too sweet, or they will eat you up; don’t be too bitter, or they will spit you out.
Check out my other posts on religious exemptions:
Government Shall Not Substantially Burden a Person’s Exercise of Religion (July 7, 2014)
Religious Sanctuary From the Law? (August 26, 2014)