Conscience Clause

There’s a small storm in the blogosphere over this incident…

Keith Bardwell, a white justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish in the southeastern part of the state, refused to issue a marriage license earlier this month to Beth Humphrey, who is white, and Terence McKay, who is black. His refusal has prompted calls for an investigation or resignation from civil and constitutional rights groups and the state’s Legislative Black Caucus.

It seems like a throwback to a time when citizens could be denied basic rights because of the color of their skin. It’s somewhat of a political embarrassment to Louisiana, but the justice, Keith Bardwell, seems bewildered by all the controversy. He’s not a racist. He was just trying to stop two young people from making a bad decision.

I think that Bardwell considers interracial marriage to be contrary to God’s plan, but he’s not saying that. He’s just maintaining that he did nothing wrong.

Over the past decade, pharmacists have followed their personal inclinations and refused to fill prescriptions for birth control pills or emergency contraceptives. I’m struck by the similarity in tone and reasoning. Judge Bardwell can’t understand why he is being persecuted for trying to do the right thing…

“Everybody hates me,” he tells reporters. “Really. I don’t know why. I treat people, I figure, equal. I have one problem with mixed marriages and that is the offspring.”

He’s just thinking of the children…

Bardwell says his concern is with the impact that an interracial marriage has on children. He says he has married white couples and black couples, but refers interracial couples to another JP.

They can get what they want somewhere else, so what’s the problem?

The problem, of course, is disrespecting the right of adult citizens to make their own decisions in personal matters. The problem is in failing his duty of performing a legal marriage. The problem is that the Judge can congratulate himself on his high moral standards– he says he has always refused to marry interracial couples, and until now, didn’t face any consequences at all. Two people, on what should have been their wedding day, were mortally insulted. Two innocent people are in the center of a controversy they never asked for. The Judge might lose his job, but there will be plenty who will welcome him with open arms.

There are too many people who see conscience as staying pure at the expense of those they are trusted to serve. Who disrespect the agency of others. Who take it on themselves to make a moral decision while someone else takes the consequences.

Racism is certainly the most glaring factor here. But in the Judge’s statements I hear an echo of those who want to claim power over other people’s choices.

Louisiana’s racist past is a political liability when so nakedly apparent. But under the surface, there are many quiet supporters of the Judge.

Almost every politician in Louisiana including Republican Governor Bobby Jindal and Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La. have denounced Judge Bardwell.
Almost… Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter who is running for re-election has been deafeningly quiet about the incident.

The Judge is a picture of injured innocence. He’ll stand on what he believes is right. His conscience is clean before God. He doesn’t understand why he is facing so much anger from the people he hurt.

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