Kim Davis rejoices. Credit: Timothy D. Easley/AP Photos

The crusade for same-sex marriage was in part a heady debate over constitutional principles. In June the struggle reached its climax as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled laws forbidding same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Now only bitter-enders such as Kim Davis refuse to live with the results. In some eyes Davis is a hero, but she’s not to me or to anyone I know, or to anyone in that vast circle of distant acquaintances speaking their piece on Facebook. In this crowd she’s a reviled hypocrite, a mischief-making county clerk in Kentucky who’s been married umpteen times, picks and chooses among Scriptures, has a nose for advancing her own celebrity, and is none too bright. 

Fortunately, we can’t judge Kentucky just by Kim Davis. Before it infuriated champions of same-sex marriage with Davis it inspired them with its attorney general, Jack Conway. Back when the crusade was still being waged and the cause demanded heroes, Conway rose to the occasion. In February of last year, a federal judge struck down Kentucky’s law prohibiting gay marriage. Governor Steve Beshear wanted the state to appeal, but Conway refused to do so. He told Time magazine: “I know where history is going on this. I know what was in my heart. From a legal
standpoint I draw the line at discrimination.”

It was Conway’s moment in the sun. Now, as news dispatches pour in from Rowan County, Kentucky, he’s either not in the story or mentioned in passing. The Tribune reported the other day that Conway’s office was considering whether to appoint a special prosecutor to deal with Davis. The New York Times reported his office was looking into the possibility of charging Davis with official misconduct as a first step toward removing her from office. 

Meanwhile, the media have found her easy pickings. Davis claims to be a prisoner of conscience, noted Gabriel Arana of Huffington Post. “Except Davis is more like the bus driver than Rosa Parks.” That was such a good line it got reused. “Contrary to her own, self-aggrandizing description, she’s no Rosa Parks,” wrote John Culhane on Politico a couple days later. “In fact, she’s the opposite: While Parks was a private citizen defying what she knew to be the law, Davis is a public official, who is charged with following the law. She’s Rosa Parks’ bus driver, denying a service to the public.”

A legal analysis by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post was headlined, “Kim Davis is no Rosa Parks.” Wrote Gerson, “There is no serious case to be made for the right of public officials to break laws they don’t agree with, even for religious reasons. This is, in essence, seizing power from our system of laws and courts.” 

I don’t exactly take exception to any of this discussion, but I want to make one observation: Instead of comparing her unfavorably to Rosa Parks—which is so easy that after you’ve read two or three of these pieces they seem lazy—pundits who ponder civil disobedience might want to compare her to Jack Conway.

I’ve seen one such comparison made—not by the mainstream media but on the website of the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom for Faith and Justice, which describes itself as a “legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.” The Alliance hasn’t adopted Kim Davis as a cause, but on its website I spotted this headline: “Welcome to Chaos: Kentucky Public Servants on Different Sides of History.”

Who would those public servants be? Davis is one. The other is Conway. An anonymous blogger pointed out that just as Davis has refused to do her job, supposedly out of conscience, so did Conway refuse to do his. Because Conway refused to appeal the federal court ruling against Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban, the governor had to hire outside counsel at a reported cost of $260,000.

The blogger wrote:

Davis is standing on the identical precedent laid down by her Attorney General . . . Davis, like Conway, realizes that the evolving definition of marriage is a moral issue and has refused to carry out an official duty that conflicts with her conscience. However, this time there is no applause from the mainstream media for Davis, and the message from her Governor is to ‘do your job’ or resign. . . [Yet] for those who look beyond the daily headlines, the difference between the moral ground upon which Conway and Davis stand in refusing to perform their official duty is indistinguishable.

It’s not quite indistinguishable. When Davis refused to do her job, nobody got marriage licenses. When Conway refused to do his, the governor had a way around him, albeit one that stuck taxpayers with a bill. Or maybe we should say the big difference is that Conway was right whereas Davis is wrong and the courts have told her so. But neither rejoinder is a sufficient response to the point the blogger makes. Mainstream media, take a shot at it. I’m not asking anyone to think better of Davis or worse of Conway, but any story worth telling should be told complete with its contradictions.