Not many readers may have heard about Marion County (Ore.) Judge Vance Day and his chapter on America's current religious liberty wars -- but you may soon.
Reading a piece about him in Williamette Week, a venerable alternate newspaper based in Portland, the first thing I noticed was a piece of art showing the judge hiding behind a statue of Jesus.
I thought: A religion story for sure.
Instead, the piece complained about how the judge was using all sorts of out-of-state funds for his legal war chest. For instance:
Day has achieved a lot of firsts. He's the first judge that Oregon's judicial fitness commission has recommended for removal from the bench in more than 35 years. He is the first judge ever to use Oregon's decade-old law allowing embattled public officials to establish legal trust funds. And Day has raised far more with his fund -- at least a half-million dollars -- than other elected officials who have established such funds.
Although Day's ethical and legal troubles have been well-documented over the past two years, the details of how he's used his defense fund to harness a political movement have not previously been reported.
Day has turned his proposed expulsion from the bench into a cash cow -- using his fund to hire big-name lawyers, rake in money from an enigmatic conservative foundation, and cozy up to permanently outraged right-wing culture warriors.
Hmmm. Reading further, I learned that it’s legal to have such a trust fund. Meanwhile, one thing Day has refused to do is same-sex marriages. In blue-state Oregon, that’s blasphemy.
What the Week was really objecting to was Day’s desire to cast himself as a martyr for religious liberty causes much like the infamous Sweetcakes by Melissa case, that also took place in Oregon and ended quite badly for its conservative Christian defendants.
As in the Sweet Cakes by Melissa case, in which a Christian baker in Gresham named Aaron Klein earned martyrdom in conservative circles for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple, Day has leveraged his plight nationally.
"It's sort of like the political grievance industry has identified Judge Day's case as one that can help finance and promote their industry nationally," (Hillsboro, Ore., lawyer Rob) Harris says.
I don’t think most Oregon media have a clue about how the Sweetcakes case has sullied the Beaver State’s reputation among conservatives nationally.
Before we chase that rabbit trail, let’s ask if, like defendants in similar cases, the judge has some religious reasons for his actions.
Turns out that The Oregonian's former religion writer Melissa Binder wrote a lengthy profile of Vance’s beliefs more than two years ago. Even the headline “A question of faith: How Judge Vance Day became a national symbol of conservative frustration,” tells us there’s profound religious roots to this controversy. We learn the judge attended Young Life in high school, Warner Pacific University (a local Christian college) and Regent University in Virginia. Binder wrote:
Most Oregonians hadn't heard of Vance Day, a 54-year-old Marion County Circuit Court judge, until earlier this month when word spread that he was refusing to perform same-sex weddings due to his religious beliefs. Since then, he has become a nationally debated symbol of the culture wars, reviled by liberals and celebrated by conservatives in the same vein as Kentucky clerk Kim Davis.
That was never, he said, his intent.
The rest of her piece is a clearheaded portrayal of Day’s side of the story and some of the problems his enemies have with him.
I started looking about for other pieces on Day and found CBN’s piece on “a Christian judge” up against a “deep blue liberal agenda” plus this opinion piece in the Washington Times that explained that as of last spring, Day was having to pay out $650,000 in personal legal expenses.
Now it becomes a bit clearer as to why Day is seeking out-of-state help. Willamette Week postulates that Day is catering to the radical right, but it seems to me that since this judge needs a ton of money that can’t be found in Oregon, so he’ll take it from wherever he can get it. Yes, he’s had to frame the debate in religious liberty terms but since the same-sex marriage factor is part of the whole equation, he’s within his rights.
So what's with the Jesus statue in the Week piece? Other local media, such as Oregon Public Broadcasting classifies the same-sex marriage refusal, and the fact that Vance is an evangelical Christian, as key elements in this story. And the video that goes along with this piece, which was taped in Indiana, definitely punches every possible religious liberty button.
Day has certainly gotten some hits from the national media, such as this Washington Post column/hit piece and the Oregon Supreme Court has been mulling over what to do about him for more than five months. Will they determine that Vance should be removed from the bench or that he’s been vilified for refusing to preside over gay marriages and the other charges are what came up when his opponents went on a fishing expedition?
The judge's Facebook page quotes one of the judge's sons as saying the media narrative about Day is skewed wrong and that the issue isn't these other charges but rather the judge's Christian faith. With such varied views of where the truth lies, I'm curious why Willamette Week steered away from any religious content in its article. Is it because the editors so disagree with the judge's stance, they can't even allude that side of the story?
If the judge isn't allowed to be heard in his own backyard, he'll make sure his case is broadcast nationally with his own spin on it.
It never hurt a newspaper to be broadminded, quoting a diverse set of sources. The Week -- and other publications -- could at least entertain the idea that religious liberty is the ultimate issue here and had Vance not opposed gay marriage, none of this would be happening.