‘Martyrs’ at public trough skate past consequences

Jaci Carfagno
Jaci Carfagno

When I was a kid, we were often challenged to consider whether we would hew to our Catholic faith even under torture by the godless communists haunting the national psyche in those days.

We heard quite a bit about torture — saints burned at the stake, organs cut out and so on — so I could kind of visualize what might be in store when those commies came my way.

To be perfectly honest I never convinced myself I’d defend my faith if a hot poker was headed for my eyeballs. Mostly, I just never wanted to be presented with the choice.

No profile in courage, I know, but at least I understood that acts of conscience came with consequences.

There’s a lot of whining about evolving social norms these days. For my money, one of the most troubling evolutions has been weakening the link between conscience and consequence.

Today those consequences are more likely to be economic and social, not physical, but they are very real.

Whistleblowers who, even if in some unknown future might become folk heroes or collect financial damages, almost always lose their jobs and rarely regain the employment status they had before their consciences interfered.

For example, consider the two women who began blowing the whistle over a decade ago on the cozy relationship between former Pikeville disability attorney Eric C. Conn and the West Virginia Social Security administrative law judge who approved almost all the claims Conn brought him.

Instead of investigating Conn, higher-ups at SSA retaliated: criticizing the women’s work, keeping track of bathroom breaks, even, with Conn, hiring someone to fake an incriminating tape. One wound up on anti-anxiety and blood-pressure medication, left her job and couldn’t find comparable work for years.

The disgraced Conn has finally been ordered to pay them damages but it’s not at all certain what’s left to collect.

Compare these heroic women to a much more famous woman about 70 miles west of them, Kim Davis.

Davis, you may remember, is the Rowan County clerk who, citing her religious beliefs, stopped issuing any marriages licenses so she wouldn’t have to sign them for same-sex couples after the Supreme Court ruled the U.S. Constitution protects their right to marry.

Davis had sworn an oath of office to uphold the Constitution. I would certainly respect her, although I don’t share her beliefs, if she had resigned, announcing she couldn’t in good conscience carry out her duties after the high court’s ruling.

But she didn’t. Instead she refused to honor her oath then played the role of a religious martyr — with a chorus of candidates (two presidential and one gubernatorial) joining the limelight.

Davis did spend five nights in jail but as far as I know never missed a day’s pay (nor did her son, a deputy clerk). It is possible that Davis could suffer financially since a panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this month that the couples she shunned have a right to be heard about claims of damages from her actions.

Davis was sent to prison by U.S. District Judge David Bunning, son of former Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning and a devout Catholic. Despite his conservative pedigree (or perhaps because of it), Bunning said the law, not his conscience, ruled. “Personal opinions, including my own, are not relevant,” he told Davis.

For that, Bunning drew protesters at his home and headlines like “Courts say living by Christian faith illegal.” “Judicial tyranny,” Todd Starnes of Fox News called it. “I truly believe Judge Bunning wanted to intimidate Christians … doing with the gavel what Bull Connor tried to do with dogs and fire hoses.”

Well, not exactly.

Anyway, Bunning’s message about the law didn’t seem to reach Family Court Judge Mitchell Nance who last month, citing his conscience, said he won’t hear adoption petitions from same-sex couples — long allowed under Kentucky law. He took the same oath as Davis.

Nance, who hears cases from Barren and Metcalfe counties, has not reached Davis’ superstar status but his statement, and the understandable criticism it’s drawn, again raised protests that Christians guided by conscience are unfairly stigmatized.

But I have the same trouble with Nance as with Davis. Staying in public office while parsing which laws you acknowledge doesn’t seem like a principled stand. It seems like having your cake and eating it, too.

Granted, giving up the perks of public office isn’t exactly like dying for your faith, but it might be a place to start.

Editorial writer Jacalyn Carfagno can also be reached at 231-1652.