MLK 50 Years Ago: A Just Law Is a Man-Made Law That Squares With the Law of God

By Terence P. Jeffrey | March 29, 2013 | 12:12am EDT

The Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Martin Luther King being arrested in Birmingham, Ala., on Good Friday, 1963. (AP Photo)

( - Fifty years ago, on Good Friday 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was arrested in Birmingham, Ala., for participating in a march against local segregation laws in violation of a state court order prohibiting civil rights activists from staging peaceful protests in that city.

While incarcerated, King wrote an open letter to a group of clergymen who had objected to his march.

On what basis could King, a Christian minister, justify directly flouting an order issued by an Alabama court?

King gave an answer simultaneously rooted in the Christian moral thinking articulated by the Roman Catholic saints Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas and in the philosophy of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

The only justification for this nation’s laws, King said, was God’s law.

“One may well ask: How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” wrote King. “The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’

“Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?” wrote King. “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”

“Thus, it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong,” wrote King.

“I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out,” he said. “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

King wrote from his Alabama jail cell that Christians who were then living in countries suffering under Communism had the same right to disobey unjust laws.

“If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws,” he said.

King predicted that history would see among the true champions of the era in which he lived those who had staged sit-ins to demonstrate that segregation laws not only defied God’s law, but because they defied God’s law also defied the founding ideals of the American nation.

“One day the South will recognize its real heroes,” wrote King.

“There will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the Gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience' sake,” he said. “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Fifty-years ago, after submitting to imprisonment in segregationist Birmingham to focus the nation's attention on that city’s unjust laws, King drew this direct line from the thinking of two Roman Catholic saints through the thinking of our Founding Fathers to the cause of freedom in 1960s Alabama.

Last year, in response to contemporary governmental threats against the free exercise of religion, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued a statement on religious liberty. They brought the moral and logical line drawn by King another half century forward in time.

After explaining that the Obamacare regulation that requires health-care plans to cover sterilizations, contraception and abortion-inducing drugs is an “unjust law,” the bishops pointed to the campaign of civil disobedience that King had led against segregation.

“During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Americans shone the light of the Gospel on a dark history of slavery, segregation, and racial bigotry,” said the Catholic bishops. “The civil rights movement was an essentially religious movement, a call to awaken consciences, not only an appeal to the Constitution for America to honor its heritage of liberty.

“In his famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. boldly said, ‘The goal of America is freedom,’” wrote the bishops. “As a Christian pastor, he argued that to call America to the full measure of that freedom was the specific contribution Christians are obliged to make. He rooted his legal and constitutional arguments about justice in the long Christian tradition.”

The bishops then warned that a time may soon come when American Catholics would have no choice but to disobey unjust laws—and perhaps not merely unjust laws issued by particular states or regions, but by the federal government itself.

The bishops said that in objecting to the injustice of the Obamacare sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate they were standing in solidarity with freedom-loving Americans of other denominations.

“As Catholics, we are obliged to defend the right to religious liberty for ourselves and for others,” the bishops wrote. “We are happily joined in this by our fellow Christians and believers of other faiths.

“A recent letter to President Obama from some sixty religious leaders, including Christians of many denominations and Jews, argued that ‘it is emphatically not only Catholics who deeply object to the requirement that health plans they purchase must provide coverage of contraceptives that include some that are abortifacients,’” they said.

“It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law,” wrote these Catholic bishops. “An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.”

A half century after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., marched in Birmingham, this is the question America faces on Good Friday 2013: Will the federal government move forward with enforcing on the nation's Catholics a regulation their bishops have flatly declared an unjust law?

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