A western Kentucky judge recently landed himself in hot water when the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) threatened a lawsuit over his refusal to perform a secular wedding. Trigg County Judge Executive Hollis Alexander was asked to perform nuptials for a Tennessee couple with an unusual request: they insisted the ceremony have no reference to God, someone Alexander believes is part of every marriage covenant.
Alexander reportedly told Mandy Heath, the Tennessee woman who asked him to officiate, “I include God in my ceremonies, and I won’t do one without him.” The belief that there is a Creator who has something to do with marriage was once widely held and noncontroversial. However, just a year after the Supreme Court rewrote the understanding of marriage, such beliefs are being marginalized.
Full disclosure: Alexander is a friend. I talked with him the other day and learned of the verbal attacks all of which are coming from outside of Trigg County. He’s been threatened by FFRF attorneys to change the language of his marriage ceremonies, but opted instead to stop performing them altogether.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel is confident the Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court is on their side. He told Alexander in a letter that the Court has interpreted the First Amendment as a mandate for governmental neutrality between religion and non-religion. And “Moreover, it has stated, ‘the preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere.’”
Just where exactly in the Constitution does it say citizens can force elected officials to perform their marriage ceremony and dictate the language they use? All kinds of legal theories can be conjured up by crafty attorneys but boil down the Tennessee couple’s argument that would force Alexander to capitulate his religious beliefs and let the dross of frivolous attacks be strained out.
It’s hubris for a group like FFRF to demand Alexander promise in writing that any future marriage ceremonies he performs exclude God, unless requested. Alexander took his oath of office with his hand placed on the Bible. Where was FFRF then? His belief and practice regarding marriage is consistent with his oath based on a higher law ordained by the Creator. He isn’t imposing his values anymore than FFRF is imposing theirs. He was simply doing his job as he has always done — according to his conscience. This is precisely what the First Amendment protects.
Secularism’s heavy hand, ready to slap down any semblance of faith in the public arena, hurts us all. Consider what proselytizing secularists have recently accomplished in Kentucky: censoring elementary school kids in Johnson County from reciting a Biblical passage in a Charlie Brown Christmas; discriminating against religious organizations like Answers in Genesis from receiving state tax incentives that other businesses would receive without a fight; and jail time for elected officials like Kim Davis whose conscience wouldn’t permit her name to affirm a homosexual marriage license.
Secularism is a belief system in and of itself. Its doctrinal statement is that God has no place in public life. Missionaries of secularism seek to convert those who publicly follow God and His ways and insist they must keep their light under a bushel, or at least in their church pews. Congregants in the Church of Secularism are certain the important questions of life can be answered through materialistic philosophy. The tragedy is that they leave no room for religiously informed views. There’s a word for this: intolerance.
The irony is that in the middle of a summer filled with hatred and violence we decry immorality and injustice and long for righteousness in our streets. We demand our public officials to be honest and trustworthy, yet when they abide by a higher moral code they are harshly criticized and somehow viewed as a threat. To what?
The real threat isn’t too much religion in the public square or people with convictions like Alexander’s; the threat is a public square sanitized of religious influence, leaving the rest of us without a basis for the things we long for, including our religious freedom and right to do our jobs according to our conscience.
Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a nonprofit public policy group. He resides in Cadiz with his wife and children.