Test case one: Adventists and Kim Davis

On Friday, September 4, while I was reading about how the German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave up his life rather than see Germany overrun by Hitler's politics, I couldn’t help but think about Kim Davis, who recently put her job on the line to stand strong for her convictions.


Kim Davis, Rowan County clerk in the state of Kentucky, has been remanded to federal custody by U.S. Marshals at the order of David Bunning, Federal District Court Judge for Eastern Kentucky. This came as the result of Davis’ statements to the media, exposing her newfound Christian convictions as the reason she was refusing to issue any marriage licenses in order to avoid issuing licenses to lesbian and homosexual applicants.

Her legal counsel, attorneys from Liberty Counsel, an evangelical legal group, openly presented the case as protected under the First Amendment free expression clause.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"

Two days before, the online edition of Atlantic Monthly published a comprehensive analysis of this unfortunate situation. The writer took the position that it was a case of poor legal counsel and closed with the hope that a more tidy case might soon surface to force the courts to deal more carefully with the issue of religious liberty in the face of the new legal environment following the Supreme Court's ruling on homosexual marriage in June, 2015.


Many Adventists took issue with Davis’ decision to order her deputies not to issue any marriage licenses until the court or a state legislature had resolved her personal grievance. They saw this as a clear case of the violation of the separation of church and state, the First Amendment's non-establishment clause.

It is true, as Adventists we are very sensitive to this clause. In fact, our long-held doctrinal position is that a religious power will lead to the disestablishment of all religious freedom around the globe, ushering in the stark prophetic oracles of Revelation 13 through 17. Therefore, as an Adventist of 30-plus years, it is not difficult for me to understand the concern expressed by many Adventists. On the other hand, I believe a key point was missed in the Adventist social media discussions surrounding the Davis’ situation.


I believe the free expression and non-establishment clauses are two sides of the same coin. Though many Adventists labeled Davis as misguided to cease all processing all marriage licenses until the issue was resolved to her satisfaction, what was generally not acknowledged was that she was pushed into a corner by the court itself, and the state governor's refusal to acknowledge her free expression claims. In other words, she was forced to infringe on the establishment clause--if we can call it that--when her fellow public servants (judge, governor) violated her rights of free expression. Just because they couldn't be bothered.

To top it all off, what many Adventists saw as nothing more than a capricious violation of the non-establishment clause by Davis, in fact, has very sobering prophetic implications. Still, they write her off as nothing more than an intellectual, conducting an academic, exercise.


Utah and North Carolina have enacted laws exempting public officials who would prefer non-adherence to the Supreme Court's ruling on homosexual marriage based on personal religious convictions. This shows that both the courts and state legislatures have yet to comprehensively address the issue of free expression in the face of the new dystopian ruling on marriage and the family. 

If we don’t want to see further violations of the non-establishment clause by our elected officials then we must ensure that religious scruples are respected, that public servants are not forced to leave personal religious conviction at the door when discharging newly demanded public duties fundamentally at odds with everything that came before.

In Davis’ case, she asked both Kentucky's governor and District Court Judge Bunning for an exemption allowing marriage licenses to be processed without her name and authority. But these public officials would not be bothered. Rather, Judge Bunning ordered Davis to federal custody, and instantly creating a public folk hero. Ironically, Bunning then ordered marriage licenses to be processed without Davis’ name and authority, the very thing Davis had asked for.

As Seventh-day Adventists, we owe Davis our gratitude for her fortitude in facing the issue head-on, potentially forcing many more states and the courts to recognize that Christian convictions cannot be nakedly dismissed as irrational artifacts of a bygone era.

I struggled as I watched and participated in an Adventist conversation on social media. I was surprised that Adventists, who are often accused of seeing the Sunday law behind every rock and shadow, by and large reacted with, at best, bemused curiosity. And even worse, many simply excoriated her as proud, misguided and one who simply wanted a little limelight.

At the same time, a much more supportive approach developed among evangelical social media. Of course many Adventists will simply label this support as consistent with and merely a step on the road to the dreaded establishment of a political religious system by Sunday-keepers, ushering in the Sunday law. However, this begs the question: Is Adventist theology nothing more than one big pot of fear-mongering? Is it one that renders its practitioners unable to offer the barest forms of human empathy and compassion? Have we forgotten that other Christians also have the right to publicly express their religious convictions?

What if Davis' predicament were over Sabbath observance? Would her Sabbatarian scruples be rendered null and void by virtue of being an elected official? Would a tribal denominational urge change Adventist perceptions? Not easy questions and therefore, no easy answers.

Would we still insist that in the face of public opposition, Davis must keep the law of the land and either give up her position or her personal Sabbath convictions?


Personally, I don’t believe that Seventh-day Adventist doctrine is simply a big pot of Sabbatarian fear-mongering, but I do believe that we as Adventist laypeople, have a long way to go before we fully grasp the implications of our own unique religious paradigm. Freedom of expression for one group means freedom of expression for all, without a knee-jerk fear reflex with establishment overtones. A balanced approach to the free exercise clause will give way to a balanced approach on the establishment clause.

Christ's way, after all, is that we treat others as we would expect to be treated. We must extend compassion for others' viewpoints if we would receive compassion when our turn comes. Love demands it. We are not a one-pony show--the Sunday law—but, as our own freewill expression of the gospel, we must be willing to grant other Christians their right to free expression 

"Just at the moment we think we got the formula kind of figured out, it's the mysterious God who comes to us and says, 'This may not be the way you would have quite figured it out,'" said Martin Doblemeier, documentary filmmaker, creator of the Adventist trilogy set, and Adventist admirer