The decision of Pope Francis to meet privately with Kim Davis, the now world famous county clerk from Kentucky who refused to grant marriage licenses to gay couples and who was jailed for a time, demonstrates that we in America still must weigh what it means to have religious freedom and at whose expense we may protect those rights.
Suppose a judge who presided over a murder case in which the defendant was convicted and the law proscribed the death sentence refused to impose it based upon his religious principle opposing capital punishment?
What if, for example, a city bus driver refused to stop at a specific location on his route because it was next to a clinic where abortions were performed?
What is the line public officials must not cross -- despite their deeply held religious beliefs -- when performing their duties? Does their right to exercise freedom of religion allow them to violate the civil law that they are supposed to follow?
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That seems to be the crux of the Kim Davis issue. The controversy exposes a deeper rift in our culture that goes beyond legal opinions.
The question is does the right to freedom of religion allow a public employee to deny other people's right to access the services provided by that employee?
Given that society has so many religions and diverse practices which dictate our morals, how should we balance those God-given rights of freedom of religion with our responsibilities to maintain what is in the best interest of the public good?
In Philadelphia, Pope Francis encouraged people to be proud of their religious heritage and to hold on to their sacred beliefs and religious rituals. Yet when it comes down to it, aren't public employees and Americans in general expected to interact with a wide spectrum of morals and values which at times do not coincide or agree with our particular religious convictions?
I had a conversation with a man recently who immigrated to this country decades ago. He said to me that he came to understand that democracy was all about not just letting the majority rule but protecting the minority as well.
It is one thing to hold beliefs privately that support a moral code. It is quite another in the public domain to act on those beliefs when it comes to conducting the business of our nation. What makes our nation great is the ability to get along with others, particularly those in a minority faith tradition or moral code who do not share our beliefs or even our moral standards on every issue.
Pope Francis spoke about the importance of giving credibility to all religions, but does that exclude people who live in a way that is different or opposed to our cherished beliefs? What would this country be like if we were allowed to discriminate against people because of their religion, race, gender or sexual orientation? Where does that trajectory of pick and choose ethics end?
Of course there are tensions on these topics and America has always had to cope with them. This has been our history since the beginning of our country.
Freedom of religion is our most sacred right. Is there not, nevertheless, a responsibility that goes with that right? That responsibility is a duty to give every citizen the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Should religious leaders have a special duty to uphold their own faith traditions as well as to teach their parishioners that we live in a pluralistic society, too?
Conflicting values between someone else's moral code is part and parcel of living in America. The Kim Davis case is a good example of why public employees in particular should not loose sight that their solemn responsibility to serve the public good may periodically require them to compromise their private religious beliefs.
I have faith that God will understand when we stretch to protect those who aren't like us but who share with us the privilege of citizenship in our great nation. I hope that the Pope believes that as well. Maybe Ms. Davis will see that point one day, too.
As the Pope recently said, "Who am I to judge?"
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at http://www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.