The Kim Davis Debate: A Question of Duty

The conversation was thirty years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday (probably because I actually managed a lucid, spontaneous response to an unexpected question).

Seated beneath a patch of trees on hot afternoon in Quantico, Virginia, a squared away Marine captain posed a simple question to a group of officer candidates. "When we Marines are ordered to fight, why do we do it?" he asked.

"Because we love to fight, sir!" replied the first Marine.

The captain returned a half-hearted nod before pointing to a second Marine who had a different take. "Because we do the right thing, sir. We're on the good side."

Still not satisfied, the captain scanned the faces of the men seated around him until his eyes locked on me. "Candidate Magee, tell us why we Marines fight when ordered?"

It was an easy question and the captain and I both knew it. "Because we're ordered to do it, sir," I replied.

The captain's eyes narrowed and a half grin appeared in the corner of his mouth. "Explain that, candidate," he demanded.

"We may love to fight, sir. But if loving or not loving to fight is the basis for whether we're obliged to fight, we'll have [chaos], sir," I answered. (Marines actually have a different term for "chaos.")

The captain nodded. "And what about 'doing the right thing?' Don't you think Marines do the right thing?" It was a question meant to pluck the emotions and evoke an irrational response.

"I'd like to think we do, sir," I began. "So long as we're not violating the Geneva Convention, our subjective opinions as to whether it's a good idea or bad idea or even whether its right or wrong have no bearing on our obligation to execute the order."

As I listen to news of a county clerk who refuses to enforce the law of the land on the basis that it contradicts her interpretation of God's will, I beckon back to that conversation beneath the Oaks at Brown Field.

Whether we agree or disagree, the Supreme Court's ruling in Obergefell v Hodges is the law of the land. For public officials, it constitutes a lawful order, and Ms. Davis has an obligation to execute it.

Imagine a world where every soldier had the right to pick and choose his or her orders. Now, imagine a government in which public servants are permitted to pick and choose the laws they enforce. Better yet, imagine a world where public servants are free to supplant the law of the land with God's will as they see it. Instead of preserving religious freedom, it would almost certainly undermine it.