Last week the Equal Justice Task Force of the African American Ministers Leadership Council, a program of People For the American Way Foundation, joined with a broad coalition of organizations in filing amicus briefs for the marriage equality cases being considered by the Supreme Court. These cases – Hollingsworth v. Perry, which challenges California’s Proposition 8, and Windsor v. U.S., which challenges Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – represent landmark opportunities for our nation to move toward making marriage equality a reality for all Americans.
“As African American faith leaders, we feel it is our responsibility to question hatred and discrimination wherever it happens – and especially in our laws,” said Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, Director of the African American Ministers Leadership Council. “Laws singling out and preventing same-sex couples from getting married are blatantly discriminatory and they hurt our communities. These amicus briefs voice our support for equal rights and equal justice for all of God’s children.”
The amicus brief for the Hollingsworth case, a continuation of the 2010 brief PFAW Foundation submitted when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case, exposes the discriminatory nature of the supposedly “moral” rationales for Proposition 8:
This Court has refused for three-quarters of a century to uphold laws disfavoring minority groups based on religious or moral disapproval alone—with the one, now-discredited exception of Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986). And for good reason: Time and again throughout our nation’s history, laws that disadvantaged or degraded particular groups have been justified by resort to morality and religion. And time and again, our society has come to see those laws as repugnant, and the religious and moral disapproval justifying them as little more than a means to enshrine the status quo.
Likewise, the amicus brief for the Windsor case points out:
This Court has long implicitly acknowledged the connection between religious justifications and the Equal Protection guarantee. The Court’s decision overturning Virginia’s law forbidding marriage between persons of different races is illustrative. In Loving v. Virginia, the Court dismissed the Virginia trial judge’s proffered religious-based rationale, which cited God’s hand in creating different races, recognizing instead that “[t]here is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification.” 388 U.S. 1, 11 (1967). Ultimately, the Court recognized that the anti-miscegenation law served no secular purpose, and was based on nothing more than racial discrimination—even if disguised as a moral or religious belief.
As these briefs highlight, discrimination – even if cloaked in the language of religious or moral beliefs – is still discrimination.
On a weekend that features both the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it is a timely moment to "take the temperature" of our democracy. Dr. King once said, "So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself." What is the status of that right today? Or, to pose a broader question: what is the status of our democracy?
In the past year I worked with a network of 1,100 African American churches and 7,000 pastors to educate, motivate, and turn out our congregations and communities on Election Day. We facilitated hundreds of thousands of voter registrations, made more than a million contacts and even transported over 27,000 people to the polls. While we are proud of the work accomplished this year, it is clear to me -- and to many who facilitated get out the vote work -- that our elections aren't working equally well for everyone. More often than not, those for whom they are not working are people of color.
One of the reasons is that Americans -- and especially Americans of color -- are questioning whether our voices can be heard over the noise of massive corporate and special interest political spending in the wake of Citizens United. In the last election, more than 1.3 billion dollars of outside money flooded the airwaves, and voters understand that politicians are paying close attention.
Last year the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law conducted a national survey on American's perceptions of Super PAC spending and the implications for our political system. An overwhelming majority of respondents (77 percent) agreed that members of Congress are "more likely to act in the interest of a group that spent millions to elect them than to act in the public interest." Americans are seeing that excessive special interest spending is overwhelming the voices and priorities of individual voters -- as well they should. I believe that this is especially true for people of color, many of whom are starkly aware of the reality of the lack of power, influence and opportunities often available to us politically.
And as Colorlines' Brentin Mock pointed out, that's all before we even set out to vote. Faith leaders on the ground all across the country who I worked with witnessed the effects of voter suppression tactics such as voter ID laws and early voting restrictions. We all remember seeing photographs of voters standing in six hour long lines until 2:00 am on election night, waiting to cast their ballots even after the presidential election had been called. And a number of new suppressive laws may go into effect this year.
A democracy in which Americans do not have a fair opportunity to have their voices heard -- whether through discriminatory voter suppression tactics or through the overwhelming influence of big money on the political system -- is not a democracy working as it should. It is a democracy in need of healing.
That's why organizers around the country are speaking out this weekend to bring attention to the interrelated attacks on our democracy today. Under the banner of Money Out/Voters In, organizers are hosting "Day of Action" events in more than 76 cities in 33 states. Some of the same faith leaders who devoted their time and energy to GOTV efforts are leading teach-ins this weekend about the dual threats of voter suppression and unlimited corporate and special interest money in politics. As African American faith leaders who value the ideals of justice and fairness, we believe it is our responsibility to advocate for a system that puts electoral power in the hands of everyday Americans rather than corporations.
Perhaps Elder Lee Harris of Jacksonville, Florida -- one of the African American faith leaders organizing voting efforts this fall -- put it best: "We've come too far and fought too hard to let anybody take away our vote again."
The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing this morning on “The State of the Right to Vote After the 2012 Election.” 2011 and 2012 saw an influx of state laws and administrative decisions designed to make it harder for certain groups of people to vote, actions that we documented in our 2011 report “The Right to Vote Under Attack” and in a 2012 update.
People For the American Way Foundation’s leadership programs were active in combatting voter suppression efforts across the country by getting out the vote among targeted groups. PFAW Foundation’s Young People For program worked with campus leaders across the country to mobilize over 22,000 young voters. And PFAW Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council worked with African-American clergy in 22 states to facilitate 400,000 voter registrations and transport over 27,000 people to the polls.
Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, Director of African American Religious Affairs, submitted testimony [pdf] for today’s hearing about AAMLC’s voting rights work. She wrote:
Across the country, restrictions on voting led to confusion and discouragement among voters. But they also were a powerful motivator, especially for those of us who lived and fought through the Civil Rights Movement. As Elder Lee Harris of Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, put it, “We’ve come too far and fought too hard to let anybody take away our vote again.” Our task was to reach out to as many voters as we could to educate them on what they needed to vote and to make sure they got to the polls and stayed there.
Minister Malachi also emphasized the importance of the Voting Rights Act, which will be reviewed by the Supreme Court next year:
In the end, our efforts to educate and organize can only go so far. Equally important in the effort to maintain the right to vote has been the role of state and federal courts, where Americans can turn when powerful forces seek to deprive them of their right to vote. Federal courts play a particularly important role in protecting the guarantees set forth in the Voting Rights Act. From Ohio to Florida to Pennsylvania to South Carolina to Texas, the courts were critical in tamping down efforts to suppress the votes of African Americans and other targeted groups. As the Supreme Court prepares to review Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, this year offered us many powerful reminders that the preclearance provisions of the VRA are still relevant and still vitally necessary. In August, when a federal court struck down Texas’ new voter ID requirement, Rev. Dr. Simeon L. Queen of Prairie View, Texas, offered these words:
“It is inexcusable that nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, politicians are still trying to make it harder for African Americans in Texas to vote. I wish the Voting Rights Act wasn’t still necessary, but thank the Lord it’s still there. African Americans in Texas have struggled throughout our history to exercise all of our rights as citizens, including the right to vote without unnecessary restrictions meant to discourage and disenfranchise. Today, thanks to the Voting Rights Act, a major threat to that effort has been defeated.”
You can read Minister Malachi’s full testimony here [pdf].
The day after the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, a group of undocumented youth in Atlanta honored him by applying his message of peaceful protest against injustice. Supported by civil rights leaders like Rev. Timothy McDonald – a PFAW Board member, the founder of the African American Ministers Leadership Council, and the chair of African American Ministers In Action – they engaged in civil disobedience and highlighted the injustice of laws effectively barring them from higher education because of their parents' immigration decisions. As reported in the Washington Post:
Eight young illegal immigrants were arrested Tuesday for sitting in the middle of a busy street in front of the Georgia Capitol, protesting their lack of access to higher education in a scene reminiscent of civil rights demonstrations decades ago.
The group, made up of mostly students, believe their plight is similar to movement the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led, and they met with former activists from the 1960s to hash out their civil disobedience plan. As the foreign-born youngsters sat in the road, at times holding hands, hundreds of supporters lined the street and cheered in support as the illegal immigrants were led away in handcuffs.
Before the sit-in the youngsters, their voices trembling, each stood before the crowd, took a microphone and announced: "I am undocumented, and I am unafraid." ...
The Rev. Timothy McDonald was one of the activists who met with the students at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the room where King and other preachers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization that led the movement for equality and justice for blacks.
"We felt the connection," McDonald said. "We pointed out that there has never been a successful movement of any kind without young people, and that was especially true of the civil rights movement. It was the students who filled up the jails, not the preachers."
As these young people show, part of the strength and beauty of King's message is its universality
People For has been documenting the dangerous and divisive Right Wing rhetoric surrounding immigration reform….rhetoric that has led to, among other things, Arizona’s new civil liberties-smashing anti-immigrant law.
But, despite the overwhelmingly cynical national dialogue on immigration reform, there remain individuals and groups who insist on treating immigrants and the issue of reform with reason and respect.
One of those groups is the African American Ministers Leadership Council, a project of PFAW Foundation. On Cinco de Mayo, several representatives of AAMLC gathered on Ellis Island to sign a multi-faith covenant calling for honesty, respect and dignity in the conversation about immigration reform—and promising that they would follow those principles in their outreach to their own faith communities.
We recently put together a short video of the event:
Members of the African American Ministers Leadership Council and African American Ministers in Action gathered on Ellis Island to sign an immigration reform covenant.
On Wednesday, members of People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council (AAMLC) and African American Ministers In Action (AAMIA) gathered on Ellis Island to pledge their unified support for a dignified, just, and tolerant approach to reforming the country’s immigration laws. The ministers, from five states and diverse denominations, were the first to sign a multi-faith covenant calling for “immigration dialogue and reform that will inspire hope, unite families, secure borders, ensure dignity and provide a legal avenue for all of God’s children working and desiring to reside in this country to drink from the well of justice and equal protection under the law.”
The covenant, which lays out seven principles for a respectful immigration reform debate, will be circulated among faith leaders of diverse traditions and ethnicities across the United States.
“We believe immigration reform is important for this nation. As faith leaders from various faith traditions, we stand united with one message and that is a message of love,” said Leslie Watson Malachi, director of African American Religious Affairs.
Watson Malachi put together the covenant in response to what she called the “increasingly nasty and divisive political and social tone of the immigration debate.”
Rev. Robert Shine
“For years, we have witnessed rhetoric around immigration reform that is deceptive, harmful, and pits communities against each other,” she said. “What took place in Arizona last month, when the state essentially legalized racial profiling in the name of immigration reform, demonstrated the mean-spirited, inhospitable atmosphere that is moving across state lines. This covenant is a statement that faith leaders will reclaim civility, lead a genuine, compassionate conversation, and not stand for racially divisive tactics that undermine the dignity of human beings.”
Members of the AAMLC were quick to sign on.
“We are concerned about all people, from all walks of life, all backgrounds, all races, all nationalities, ethnic origins, etc.,” said Reverend Melvin Wilson of St. Luke AME Church in New York, one of the original signers, “But the tone of the current discussion of immigration has been so negative, so divisive, we are just not going to sit idly by and let the talking heads speak without providing a counter-voice.”
Rev. Patrick Young signs the covenant as Rev. Dr. E. Gail Anderson Holness looks on.
“To sign this covenant is important for multiple reasons,” said Reverend Byron Williams, of Resurrection Church in Oakland, California, who was among the first leaders to add his name to the document. “First of all, it’s important on the issues of equality, and justice, and fairness and dignity. But it also makes an important statement that we have African American pastors coming together. Our ancestry does not take us by Ellis Island, but the concept of liberty is one that’s as deep in our community as it is for anyone that’s come to these shores looking for a better life. It’s those deeply held values of liberty, justice and fairness that are the bedrock of American principles.”
Watson Malachi plans to continue promoting the messages of unity and dignity through education and awareness efforts that include informative dialogue sessions, roundtable conversations with faith leaders from African, Caribbean, Latino, African American and other communities.
The full text of the covenant can be found here.
People For’s report on divisive and dishonest rhetoric in the debate on immigration reform is here.
You'd think that Congressman Trent Franks would have learned from his brush with fame last year when he declared that President Obama was an "enemy of humanity" because he's pro-choice.
But he didn't. Yesterday Congressman Franks argued that African Americans were better off under slavery than having the constitutional right to reproductive choice.
FRANKS: In this country, we had slavery for God knows how long. And now we look back on it and we say "How brave were they? What was the matter with them? You know, I can't believe, you know, four million slaves. This is incredible." And we're right, we're right. We should look back on that with criticism. It is a crushing mark on America's soul. And yet today, half of all black children are aborted. Half of all black children are aborted. Far more of the African American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by the policies of slavery. And I think, What does it take to get us to wake up?
Thank goodness there are people like Rev. Kenneth Samuel, of People For Foundation's African American Ministers Leadership Council, to stand up for choice--and sanity.
People For the American Way Foundation’s Sharon Lettman will be on Rev. Byron Williams’ Radio Show on Blogtalkradio.com to discuss the African American Ministers Leadership Council and the work the organization does around civic participation, economic justice, equal justice, health care, and public education. Tune in here at 1 pm EDT for the hour long show – and be sure to call-in with questions.
This week, People For Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council is co-sponsoring the Harambee* celebration at Howard Divinity School.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend one of the panels we sponsored, “Homophobia in the Black Church.” It was, if I do say so myself, pretty great.
The event is part of AAMLC's ongoing work to target homophobia in the Black Church. And while it would be nice to say that everyone was in complete agreement on the subject, that would also be a little dull. That wasn’t a problem yesterday.
Instead, there was a rich and respectful conversation about homophobia, sexuality, history, theology, and the role religion to plays in our Democracy. (Which stands in stark contrast to the deception and fear mongering that the Right has used to exploit divisions on the issue.)
The panel was moderated by Rev. Tony Lee, Senior Pastor of Community of Hope AME Church in Temple Hills, MD, and featured:
We had a sizable crowd, but if you weren’t able to attend, fear not: we’ll be releasing a transcript of the event in the near futures, and the conversation will be continuing throughout the year.
(* - "Harambee" is the Kenyan tradition of community self-help. In case you were wondering.)
With just over a week to go until the election, things are popping at People For. I want to let you know how we're using your support to make an impact on many fronts.
The Voters Alliance: Building Progressive Power
People For the American Way's federal political action committee is helping build a progressive majority in Congress. We were thrilled that an extremely successful online contest run by the Voters Alliance raised more than $130,000 for 24 progressive House candidates. And now the Voters Alliance is working with Oscar-winning director Errol Morris and volunteers from the award-winning advertising firm Chiat Day (of Apple fame) to create short but powerful online profiles of moderate voters who have decided that Obama has earned their vote. The spots are being digitally filmed and edited this week in time for a final pre-election push. I'll let you know when they're ready to watch online and forward to your friends.
Sounding the Alarm: The Court is at Stake
People For the American Way has succeeded in getting media and progressive candidates talking about the importance of the Supreme Court in this election. Now we're kicking it up a notch, with TV spots for Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Oregon, reminding voters that senators have hurt their interests by backing Bush's extreme judges. People For the American Way Action Fund has been running radio ads holding John McCain and other senators accountable for voting to confirm Bush's worst judicial nominees.
Confronting Homophobia and Anti-Gay Discrimination
In California, where the Right has stirred a vicious backlash against a state Supreme Court ruling protecting marriage equality, People For the American Way Foundation's African American Ministers Leadership Council has launched a radio ad campaign calling on African Americans to reject anti-gay discrimination. Check out the ads here. This work is part of a long-term effort to engage clergy and challenge homophobia in the Black Church and in African American communities. Rev. Kenneth Samuel, the courageous and inspiring head of AAMLC's Equal Justice Task Force, is on the ground in California now, and he'll be leading this groundbreaking effort to create social change in the months and years ahead.
Calling out the Promoters of Fear and Hatred
We're also challenging campaign tactics that are stirring up a dangerous brew of fear and bigotry. For example, when John McCain falsely accused a progressive voter registration group of trying to steal the election, its offices were barraged with hateful and threatening messages. We made it impossible to ignore this hostility and bigotry by posting images and audio of the actual messages online for the world to see. And with a full-page ad in the New York Times and other media outreach we have worked hard to help people understand that bogus charges of voter fraud are meant to give cover to the real threat to the election from right-wing voter suppression. Our Right Wing Watch blog has been all over the Religious Right's bigotry and fearmongering.
Overcoming Voter Suppression
People For the American Way Foundation's Democracy Campaign staff have been traveling the country training community organizers who are running election protection efforts and distributing in-depth, state-specific voter protection toolkits. With the help of SEIU, NAACP, NEA, Unity 08, Democracia Ahora and other partners, our Foundation has distributed more than 180,000 palm cards in key states to help voters understand and protect their rights. The Foundation is working with allies to recruit poll workers where they're sorely needed and will be distributing inexpensive video cameras to members who will document what happens on Election Day. There's no way to stop all the dirty tricks that the Right has in store, but People For Foundation has been working hard to put protections in place, and after the election it will work hard to figure out what went wrong this time, and fight for legal and regulatory fixes. Two New York Times editorials in the past week have confirmed that voter fraud is a myth and affirmed the importance of the Election Protection work the Foundation is doing to help voters understand and assert their rights.
Change is in the air, but as you know, it doesn't just happen. We all need to make it happen. With your help, we and our allies are going to change the country! Thanks so much for making it all possible.