A single county clerk from a small part of Kentucky recently made significant headlines, particularly for those in the HR industry. Kim Davis was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Rowan county, Kentucky, raising interesting questions about the interplay between religious freedom and legal compliance on a larger scale.
While certainly not the first issue of its kind, this circumstances highlights an important issue in the HR world – the tenuous line between legal compliance and the freedom of religion that is protected by various pieces of legislation. While the issue has been perceived as very cut-and-dried up to this point, events like Davis’ imprisonment, as well as others, have begun to show that there is more nuance and subtlety than employers may have originally suspected when it comes to walking the fine line between religious freedom and the law.
Religion and the law
In late August 2015, Kim Davis, Rowan county clerk, was issued an order requiring her to provide marriage licenses for same-sex couples in compliance with June’s Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized same-sex unions across the country. For her failure to abide by the order – the motivation for which she cited as upholding her religious freedom – Davis ended up in jail for a week, until she removed the ban she had placed on her deputies preventing them from issuing these orders themselves.
This is far from the first time the issue of religious freedom has made headlines in the professional world. Just a couple of years ago, arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby came into the spotlight when it similarly cited religious freedom as the basis of its decision to deny employees health insurance plans that covered birth control.
Knowing where the law ends
Interestingly, in the case of Davis in particular, the issue may not be as hairy as experts had originally feared. While the Society for Human Resource Management did note that freedom of conscience is recognized by the Supreme Court as a fundamental human right in the U.S., the source also indicated that government employees in particular aren’t permitted to deny public services to members of the public.
This is a key difference between the Kim Davis incident and the Hobby Lobby case, which may be two of the most high-profile instances of religious freedom claims grinding up against the law. In Davis’ instance, since she was a government employee, she was not permitted by law to deny service, even based on her religious beliefs. However, because Hobby Lobby is a private company, their decision to bar certain types of insurance coverage based on religion was constitutionally protected.
Navigating the quagmire of legislation surrounding employment issues can be difficult for small-business owners. If you’re worried about remaining in compliance, consider working with PEO companies. These organizations can offer you expert HR services without having to support a whole department on your company’s payroll.