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Our View: When elected officials face a crisis of conscience




When a person is elected to office in our nation, the first thing that person does -- before considering any business or casting any vote -- is to take an oath of office, swearing to uphold the Constitution and the law of the land. 


But what happens when honoring that commitment means violating a deeply-held conviction? Can a person be asked to violate his/her personal beliefs to conform with the law? 


What is usually a theoretical question has been a reality in Starkville over the past two weeks. Tuesday, the Starkville Board of Aldermen approved a parade permit for a March 24 parade by Starkville Pride, an LGBT group. That decision rescinded a Feb. 20 vote to deny the permit. 


One vote -- or rather the lack of a vote -- turned out to be the deciding factor. Aldermen Ben Carver, Roy Perkins, Henry Vaughn and David Little voted against the permit on Feb. 20 in a 4-3 decision while Patrick Miller, Sandra Sistrunk and Jason Walker voted to approve the permit. 


Tuesday, six voted as they did previously. 


Little, however, abstained, leaving a 3-3 tie which mayor Lynn Spruill broke in support of approving the permit. 


If the test before the aldermen was whether they would uphold the oath they swore upon taking office, it is clear that Carver, Perkins and Vaughn, by their votes, failed to meet that standard. Again. The First and 14th Amendments, which guarantee citizens the right to peaceably assemble and equal protection under the law, make it clear the vote to deny the parade permit with providing a compelling government interest to support the decision, is a violation of the Constitution. 


Little's decision to abstain was the one option available that would have allowed the aldermen to avoid breaking their oath. 


While we expect our elected officials to follow the law -- we are nation of laws, not of men -- we also understand that some votes may strike at the heart of deeply held moral beliefs. 


Officials often abstain from voting on issues, most often because their vote might constitute a conflict of interest. As citizens, we often abstain, too. We don't go certain places or do certain things, not because it is illegal, but because it conflicts with our beliefs. We may attend the March 24 parade or abstain from attending, for example. 


For most elected officials, abstaining on principle is something they rarely feel they need to do. Few matters put before them are questions of whether to follow the law or defy it. 


While we have no praise for those who vote to abstain solely to avoid making a difficult or unpopular decision, we do believe there are instances where an official, forced to choose between the law and conscience, chooses to abstain. In those cases, it is the best available option. 


At some point between Feb. 20 and Tuesday evening, Little recognized this. 


Regrettably, Carver, Perkins and Vaughn did not.



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