Kentucky Court Clerk, A “Professing Apostolic Christian,” Questions Legal Authority

Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky clerk who continues to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples despite the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear her case, says she is obeying “God’s authority,” not the authority of her employer or even the highest court in the land.

Davis’s lawyers at Liberty Counsel, the conservative Christian law firm affiliated with Liberty University Law School, describe her in court papers as “a professing Apostolic Christian who attends church worship service multiple times per week, attends weekly Bible study, and leads a weekly Bible study with women at a local jail.”

That might leave a lot of people scratching their heads, as this description is not as recognizable as “Presbyterian” or “Baptist” or “evangelical.”

So what does that mean? I asked our own (very busy covering the Pope) Anthea Butler, a religious historian at the University of Pennsylvania. In all likelihood, “it means she is part of a group of churches that believe in apostolic succession,” Butler told me. “They see themselves as a direct line from the early church.” These churches are often Pentecostal, believing in signs and wonders (such as miracles and divine revelation), and “believe in high moral boundaries—no drinking or smoking, modest dress; many have prohibitions on cutting their hair. They are literal interpreters of the Bible,” Butler said.*

That the Bible is the number one authority, Butler added, “would’ve been drummed into her since she was a little girl.”

So how did Davis become the center of a national firestorm? That has a lot to do with how the legal advocates who share Davis’s belief that the Bible, not civil law, is the ultimate authority, took that belief to court.

For the long historical view, it’s useful to read Julie Ingersoll’s new book on Christian Reconstruction, which details how a Calvinist religious movement (which would part company on several key theological points with an apostolic Pentecostal movement) brought the argument that the Bible trumps civil law into the mainstream of the religious right. As Ingersoll told me in an interview last month:

Christian Reconstructionists argue that the Bible must govern every aspect of life. In their framework, known as “jurisdictional authority” or “sphere sovereignty,” God delegates biblical authority to three distinct, and severely limited, spheres of “government.” There is family government, ecclesiastical (church) government, and civil government, each with its own authority and sphere of legitimate influence. . . .

Reconstructionists do not seek to unite church and state but they do seek to bring the civil government under biblical authority. In fact, they seek the complete transformation of every aspect of culture to bring it into alignment with what they believe the Bible teaches.

Kim Davis very well may have never read a word of Christian Reconstruction in her life; she may very well have never heard of Rushdoony or any of his followers. But that, in a way, demonstrates Ingersoll’s central point: that the idea that the Bible is of a higher authority than a ruling of the United States Supreme Court is now, for many conservative Christians, inviolable. Indeed despite theological differences between Reconstructionists and 20th century charismatic Christian movements, there was mutual admiration and cooperation between the two—more evidence of the fluidity between the various religious movements that converge in the political (and legal) religious right, and how it’s not possible to silo them as independent political actors.

Although conservative Christian lawyers couch their legal claims in the more palatable “religious freedom” argument, Christian legal education is explicitly designed to train lawyers to represent someone like Davis, a plaintiff who purports to make a religious freedom claim, but actually aims to litigate the very essence of authority.

The first Christian law school in the United States, Oral Roberts University Law School (founded in 1986 and later absorbed into Regent University Law School), was created to “restore the Bible to legal education,” according to one of its founders, Herb Titus. Titus has represented Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court best known for his refusal to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse and, more recently, for his own claims that court clerks should refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. (Ingersoll noted that Moore is “something of a folk hero for conservative Christians but you rarely see recognition of the background to his views,” meaning how “sphere sovereignty” underpins his protests against secular authority.)

Students at Liberty University Law School, as I reported in 2011, were taught that “when faced with a conflict between ‘God’s law’ and ‘man’s law,’ they should resolve that conflict through ‘civil disobedience.'” One former student explained it this way: “The idea was when you are confronted with a particular situation, for instance, if you have a court order against you that is in violation of what you see as God’s law, essentially… civil disobedience was the answer.”

Davis’s Liberty Counsel lawyers argued in their petition to the Supreme Court for an emergency stay that her “conscience forbids her from approving a SSM license,” and issuing one would be a “searing act of validation” that would “forever echo in her conscience”—setting the stage for her disobedience of a court order.

With the latest ruling from the Supreme Court, Davis faces being held in contempt of court if she continues to refuse to issue the licenses. But for her, she is acting under “God’s authority,” not the courts’.

*Editor’s Note: At least one commenter on RD has pointed to this statement of faith, which includes obedience to the government, to argue that Kim Davis is in violation of her own church’s beliefs. The confusion is understandable, but The Apostolic Christian Church of America is a denomination with no connection to the Pentecostal church Kim Davis reportedly belongs to. 

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