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Arrested for denying marriage licenses to gay couples, Kim Davis is now being championed by the Republican candidates as a hero. Her imprisonment signals the end of Christian privilege in the US. Spencer Kimball reports.
A gay couple, surrounded by media, stands at the counter in the county clerk's office and asks to be served. They would like a marriage license. Two months earlier, the highest court in the United States had legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
But in this small county in the state of Kentucky, the clerk obeys laws different than those weighed by the Supreme Court. Kim Davis, an evangelical Christian, refuses to issue the marriage license. When asked by the couple under what authority, she responds: "God's authority."
Davis was ultimately found in contempt of court and arrested. Though now in jail, she's still officially the county clerk in Rowan County. As an elected official, Davis can only be removed from office by the state legislature. She receives a salary of $80,000 (72,000 euros) a year from the taxpayer.
Bill Leonard is a Baptist minister and an expert on American religious life at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. According to Leonard, if Davis can't fulfill the oath she took as county clerk to execute the laws of the land, she should resign.
"It's fine for her to oppose this on the basis of liberty of conscience, a lot of people do that," Leonard told DW. "But she's contradicting the oath she took. She can't have it both ways. She can't keep making $80,000 a year and not fulfill her oath."
With Davis in jail for the time being, the county clerk's office in Rowan County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on Friday for the first time since the Supreme Court's ruling in June. But the broader controversy is far from over.
Separation of church and state is a basic constitutional principle in America - at least on paper. Yet some conservatives view the United States as a Christian nation, one in which the Supreme Court has no business legalizing same-sex marriage. Though Kim Davis clearly broke the law, she's a hero to many, including most Republican presidential candidates.
"Kim Davis should not be in jail," Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who was once a legal clerk at the Supreme Court, said in a press release. "We are a country founded on Judeo-Christian values, founded by those fleeing religious oppression and seeking a land where we could worship God and live according to our faith, without being imprisoned for doing so."
Demographically, the United States remains overwhelmingly Christian. Seven out of 10 Americans identify with a branch of Christianity, while the Pew Research Center reports that more Christians live in the US than in any other country in the world.
According to Leonard, America has never been a Christian nation. There's never been a state church. But culturally, Protestant Christianity was given a privileged status over other religions.
"From the beginning, America as a nation tended to privilege Protestantism," Leonard said. "It wasn't that America was explicitly Christian. It was implicitly Christian in privileging Protestant identity."
The death of Protestant privilege
In a Facebook post, Senator Cruz claimed that a "war on faith" had broken out in America and called on his supporters to "be vigilant to protect the free exercise of religion."
Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and an ordained Baptist minister, was no less forceful in his rhetoric. The candidate for the Republican presidential nomination decried the "criminalization of Christianity" through "judicial tyranny." Huckabee plans to hold a rally in Kentucky on Tuesday in support of Kim Davis.
According to Leonard, there's neither a "war on faith," nor a "criminalization of Christianity" in America. Instead, there's a major demographic shift going on. Over the past eight years, the number of Americans age 18 and over who identify as Christian has dropped by eight percent. One in five Americans are now unaffiliated, identifying with no religion.
As the religious demographics of the nation change, what some conservatives refer to as Christian values, in particular Protestant Christian values, are losing the privileged status that they once held in America.
"The decision on same-sex marriage was a very explicit broadside against Protestant privilege in the country and Protestant evangelicals are feeling that very dramatically," Leonard said. "Protestant privilege is dying in front us right now. Protestants are having to function like everybody else in the country, without the cultural privilege."