The morals and ethics of Kim Davis’ stance have been hashed and rehashed over the last several weeks. Philosophically, both the choice between civil obligations and religious ones, and the determination of what are properly obligations rather than personal choices, are complex topics. However, the question of whether imprisoning her for not doing her job is unjust isn’t: she wasn’t; and even if she had been, it wouldn’t be unjust.
The basic employment contract sets out the things an employee will do in exchange for the benefits an employer provides and things an employer will do in exchange for the benefits an employee will provide. Almost all will also incorporate, either directly or by reference, a procedure for dealing with one party not performing their side of the bargain. Many legal jurisdictions will also have laws imposing certain processes whether or not the specific contract and policies mention them. So, in the usual case, a failure by the employee to perform a task breaches the contract triggering the defined process for handling it (usually a hearing followed by suspension/dismissal).
One of the principles that suggest a just society is predictability, so as a general rule, where a remedy/sanction exists, it is unjust to impose another one. Thus, where someone refuses to do their job sending them to prison would usually be unjust.
However, that wasn’t what happened here: Kim Davis was punished for Contempt of Court.
For a Court system to function, there must be a method of enforcing the Court’s decisions. Logically, this method must leave the person refusing to obey facing a bigger punishment than if they had obeyed; otherwise, they would have no reason to obey. In this case, the individual judge made the entirely reasonable decision to impose imprisonment for her failure to obey.
Liberty exists in proportion to wholesome restraint.
– Daniel Webster
But had she actually been imprisoned for failing to do her job it wouldn’t be an affront to the general principle, as the circumstances of her employment are special: she is an agent of government.
A second indicator of a just society is a mechanism for reducing abuses of power. Where someone is granted authority beyond that of a private citizen, methods exist to ensure the imbalance is not abused. From the additional punishments imposed on military personnel refusing an order to the power of courts to challenge the actions of the executive, there is a long history of applying additional legal measures to the mechanisms of government.
While Kim Davis was an employee, she was also an agent of government. Her failure to issue the licenses was not only the refusal of an employee to fulfil their contract, it was an abuse of governmental authority. And the power of the state is such that more severe sanction for abuse is entirely just.
In the event anyone doesn’t know why Kim Davis was famous (or the more ego-boosting event that people too busy to look it up are taking the time to read this post far enough in the future that they have forgotten), she didn’t do her job and disobeyed a Court ordering her to start doing her job. Specifically, she refused to issue wedding licenses to homosexual couples and then a Court Order to issue them.