African American Religious Affairs

Discrimination Masked as Religious Freedom? Not in My Name.

This op-ed by Rev. Timothy McDonald III, co-chair of People For the American Way's African American Ministers in Action, was originally published at The Huffington Post.

Last week, a bill disguised as a "religious liberty" measure that would give a green light to discrimination was passed by the Georgia Senate and will now go to the House.

As a Baptist pastor, I feel called to weigh in on a proposal that is supposedly designed to protect religious rights in my state. I fully support every person's constitutionally-protected right of the free exercise of religion. The right to pray to whatever God you believe in and freely practice your religion is a fundamental one, and one that must be protected.

But I do not support this bill, which is not a true effort to protect First Amendment rights. And the fact that supporters in the state Senate quickly and unexpectedly brought it up in committee when no Democrats were present makes me wonder if even proponents aren't so sure of its merit.

The proposed bill is modeled on a national religious freedom bill that passed in 1993, and supporters claim that it would shield people of all religions from government intrusion. In reality, this is a bill that threatens to allow businesses and individuals to simply flout the laws they don't like. It threatens to turn "religious liberty" law from a shield to guard individual liberties into a sword to bring harm to others.

For example, what happens if medical workers, citing religious beliefs, decide that they won't treat gay or transgender people? If business owners decide that they won't serve Muslims or interracial couples? If landlords decide they won't rent to single women? Beyond anti-discrimination protections, what happens if individuals or business owners claim they are exempt from any number of laws they disagree with? What happens, for example, if employers decide that paying their workers a minimum wage goes against their religious beliefs? Do we want to live in a society where your legal rights depend on the religious beliefs of others in the community?

Basic rights and equality should never yield to discrimination.

Other religious leaders here in Georgia aren't fooled, either. Working with a group of more than 160 clergy across the state, we have been asking our elected officials to abandon this misguided project, urging them not to pass any so-called "religious freedom" legislation that could lead to widespread discrimination. Handing people the "right" to use the mantle of religious liberty to harm others? Not in our name.

It's clear that rather than fixing a problem, as good public policy should, this bill would create problems, and often for those most vulnerable among us.

Even former state attorney general Michael Bowers, who once fought in favor of anti-gay "sodomy" laws, has called the bill "nothing but an excuse to discriminate," saying it is "ill-conceived, unnecessary, mean-spirited, and deserving of a swift death in the General Assembly."

I agree. My faith tells me that I should stand up for the marginalized. That I should speak out against proposals that could deny basic rights to others -- especially when it's being done in the name of religion.

PFAW

From Selma to Shelby County to Ferguson

This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.

Fifty years ago in Alabama hundreds of peaceful marchers calling for voting rights were violently attacked by state police. Fifty years later Americans from all walks of life are expected to gather this weekend to mark the anniversary of what became known as Bloody Sunday and embrace the spirit for courage, sacrifice and justice of those women and men who marched, were beaten and no doubt underestimated the impact that their bruises would have on future generations.

The events of that day and the tense days and weeks that followed shocked our national consciousness and became a catalyst for passage of what some call the "crown jewel" of the civil rights movement, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It's a law that held bipartisan support and helped protect countless Americans from discrimination at the ballot box for almost five decades.

Every year since that bloody day we have honored those 600-plus marchers who put their lives on the line in pursuit of basic democratic rights and racial justice. But this year, with a passion as never before, we must do more than just give lip service. This time marchers of today must clearly connect with the purpose in the pain that started in prayer on a Sunday morning and ended on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with blood and tears in the afternoon. Why? Because as John Legend so eloquently put it last week, "Selma is now."

The shadow of Bloody Sunday is there, nearly two years after a core provision of the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court in the Shelby County case, as we practice patience for Congress to restore and strengthen what was taken away. When our leaders say that they honor those who refused to turn around, will they also commit to restoring the kinds of voting protections that they were marching for?

Today, 40 bills to restrict voting rights have been introduced in states across the country, from voter ID legislation to proposals reducing access to absentee ballots to bills that would make it more difficult for those with past criminal convictions to vote. When our leaders say they honor those who were beaten and bruised with billy clubs 50 years ago, will they also commit to voting against proposed laws that would make it harder for all people to have an equal voice in our democracy? Will they commit to confirming the highly qualified Loretta Lynch, a woman with a strong commitment to civil rights, to lead -- as the first female African American -- the Justice Department in effectively monitoring and enforcing the voting rights laws we already have and those yet to come?

Today, African Americans and Latinos, especially males, endure being routinely profiled, targeted, and attacked by the police. The report released this week from the Department of Justice about policing in Ferguson, Missouri, revealed that 93 percent of arrests were of African Americans, though they make up only 67 percent of the city's population. It showed and confirmed that African Americans in Ferguson were disproportionately likely to have force used against them by the police. When our leaders say they honor those who were hospitalized for peaceful protest 50 years ago, will they also commit to fighting against discrimination and violence at the hands of those meant to serve and protect our communities?

Selma is now, and the march continues. Selma needed protection for voting rights then, and Selma needs protection for voting rights now. Many civil rights leaders, past and present, and even future leaders, will be in Selma this weekend. But thousands of others who can't be there in person will not be excluded from being a part of a new march. Men and women will with great intent make sure every registered voter gets to the polls to vote in every election, will minister with an activist heart to their neighborhoods when violence upends daily life, will use social media as a tool to motivate participation in work aimed at ending all forms of discrimination in the name of religion, and will organize their communities in active opposition when yet another bill is introduced to undermine, restrict, or deny basic civil and human rights.

On the evening of that Sunday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. informed the media that ministers would march and called for clergy from around the country to join them. He said, "The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of America, but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. ... In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land."

I was not there then, but today as with every day, especially because of the Shelby Counties and the Fergusons, I give thanks and will not forget that struggle. On March 7, 1965, the world watched as nonviolent mothers, fathers, students, workers, faith leaders were beaten, tear gassed and hospitalized. On March 7, 2015, let the world watch as this next generation genuinely honors those who had the courage to take a stand that Bloody Sunday "for the survival of democracy." How? By registering, advocating, teaching, speaking up, marching and continuing their work in pursuit of voting rights, freedom, and justice as if our unseen bruises, our lives, our souls depend on it.

PFAW Foundation

Big Spending, Big Inequality

This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.

Five years ago this week, the Supreme Court handed down its damaging decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The ruling, which allowed wealthy interests to buy unprecedented influence in elections, was and still is deeply unpopular. But the issue of money in politics remains, for some people, relegated to a category of "someone else's issue" -- the policy wonks in Washington, the researchers who spend long hours sifting through the latest campaign data. "It's their issue," we think.

In reality, the decisions like Citizens United that paved the way for the big-money election system we have today affect our lives every day, even when those connections can be hard to see.

Last month, Demos released a report laying bare some of those links, especially as they affect people of color. Their analysis highlighted how big money in politics undermines racial equality:

Elections funded primarily by wealthy, white donors mean that candidates as a whole are less likely to prioritize the needs of people of color; and that candidates of color are less likely to run for elected office, raise less money when they do, and are less likely to win.

The report point outs that in some ways, this is not new: As long as our country has been a country, people of color have been shortchanged by our democratic system. Our history is littered with violent retaliation and unrelenting roadblocks for many who tried to actively participate in our democracy. But those setting a political agenda that shortchanges people of color haven't always had unlimited billionaire and corporate political dollars backing them up.

What does this mean in real people's lives? It means more mass incarceration, for one, the harm of which African Americans disproportionately bear. Wealthy people are more likely than low-income people to support the construction of more prisons, and studies have found that the rich have greater influence on policy outcomes. Private prison companies, whose bottom lines depend on getting people behind bars, spend millions to influence policymakers, and groups like the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have pushed for tougher sentencing laws. But it's often people of color who pay the price, when family members and friends suddenly disappear from their communities.

It also means a stagnant minimum wage, which women of color are disproportionately likely to be earning. While the public strongly supports raising the minimum wage, groups like the Chamber of Commerce, which opposes raising it, can afford to pour millions into elections and hold serious sway with lawmakers. Though not immediately apparent, there is a direct connection to the amount of money a low-income woman takes home in her paycheck and the Supreme Court decisions governing our big-money political system.

And the list could go on and on. At the end of the day, money in politics cannot be "someone else's issue." Because it distorts who is heard by our elected officials, it affects what's in your paycheck, who ends up in prison, what kind of health care we have access to, what kind of environment we leave for our children, and much more.

That's why one piece of the larger fight for racial justice must be reforming the rules governing money in elections. It's fitting that we mark the fifth anniversary of Citizens United on the same week we remember the life of Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, in his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, King said, "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."

In the wake of Citizens United, the struggle to make those promises real has become even more urgent.

PFAW

Stay in Hope: Remarks by Minister Leslie Watson Malachi on Marriage Equality

Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, director of African American Religious Affairs at People For the American Way, delivered the following remarks to those supporting marriage equality in front of the Supreme Court today.

I greet you as one who is humbled to stand before you on this day that will be like none other and say celebrate, be glad in it, and keep standing for and with Hope!

Why Hope? As the Director of African American Religious Affairs of People For the American Way, Hope tells us DOMA will not stand but like Goliath, will fall.

Hope says same gender couples, in committed relationships will be recognized and receive those 1100 plus benefits now denied by the federal government. Hope defends what is right, Hope unites people and families, Hope stands with us and for us, and Hope is the American Way!

Why Hope? As an organizer and ally since 1996, Hope kept us waiting for this historic day. Hope gave us a process and a lesson to never take lightly judicial nominations, to make sure voter registration and mobilization is a core value, to rejoice in victories in 2012 from the proclamation from the highest officer holder in this country – President Obama - to 4 states making it 9 states total passing pro-Marriage Equality laws, and that our work in the states is not done.  Hope hasn’t just strengthened those who have always believed in marriage equality. It’s brought others to reconsider their opposition and join us on the side of justice for all. Hope is why we have so many other new and welcomed allies for equality.

Why Hope? As a Christian, during this Holy Week, from our sacred text “hope that is seen is not hope”, so you have had and must hold on with unwavering confidence that help has arrived, is sitting in between the walls of the highest court of this nation, and speaking into existence freedom that will no longer be denied.

And finally, why Hope? As an African American woman, on behalf of the Equal Justice Task Force of African American Ministers In Action, Hope says the enemy is a liar when they say African Americans and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are two separate - even hostile – communities, for “no weapon shall be forged against us” and no wedge can be driven between those who know oppression, discrimination, denial of basic civil and human rights.  Hope connects the civil rights movement to the gay rights movement, the yesterday to today, the hopeful to the hopeless.

So Beloved, stay in Hope! Stay in Hope I say for if the Justices are about the business of justice, then they will speak against hate, division, intolerance, and barriers to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.

Stay in Hope for my sacred text tells us what “man meant for harm, God intends for good”.

In this pivotal moment in our country's history, we must stand on the side of compassion and equality rather than on the side of oppression and discrimination. And that’s why we’re all out here on the steps of the Supreme Court today.

I leave you with these words, stay in Hope because it was the late Senator Ted Kennedy who said, and prayerfully he won’t mind me playing with it a little bit, “ For all those whose dreams have been our concern (to defeat all forms of discrimination), the work goes on (we are not going to stop trying until gay and lesbian Americans across the country have full legal equality), the cause endures (freedom to be, freedom to love, just freedom), the hope still lives ( I say again hope still lives), and the dream (for all persons to marry the person they love) shall never die.”

Be encouraged! Have faith. Expand love. Know peace. And may Hope, which is never silent, always be with you!

 

 

PFAW

We Can’t Afford to Lose the Voting Rights Act

Tomorrow morning, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a challenge to a pivotal section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The part of the VRA that’s under attack is Section 5, which requires the Justice Department or a federal court to approve changes to voting laws in states and counties that have a history of racially discriminatory voting practices before those laws can go into effect. The lead-up to last year’s elections, in which state legislatures passed a slew of discriminatory voter suppression measures, showed just how much Section 5 is still needed.

Today, People For the American Way Foundation released a new report from Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin detailing the history and continued need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and what progressives can do to ensure equal voting rights in the years to come. Raskin writes:

A decision against Section 5 preclearance or the Section 4(b) coverage formula would likely spell the political demise of the Voting Rights Act, even if it is theoretically salvageable by an updated coverage formula or an even more relaxed preclearance procedure.  Our paralyzed, deadlocked Congress will never come to terms on how to revive and renovate it if the Court knocks it down or puts it into a tiny little straitjacket.

Win, lose, or draw, progressives should reckon with the prospect that the days of this landmark statute might be numbered.  This means that we need to take up an ambitious democracy and voting rights agenda of our own for the new century, this time with explicitly universalist aims and general terms that deal with the complex suppression of democracy today.  The voting rights struggles of the new century relate not just to old-fashioned racial trickery in Alabama and Texas but new-age vote suppression in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio; they involve not just traditional vote dilution in the South but the increasingly untenable disenfranchisement of 600,000 Americans in Washington, D.C and 3.6 million Americans in Puerto Rico.

Also today, PFAW Foundation’s Director of African American Religious Affairs, Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, wrote in the Huffington Post about the challenges that people of color still face at the ballot box, nearly half a century after the passage of the Voting Rights Act:

In 2011 and 2012 I organized faith leaders from 22 states in combating voter suppression efforts and turning out the vote among specific communities. This election cycle offered many powerful reminders why Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is still needed. Texas, for example, passed a discriminatory voter ID law that would have required voters to present government-issued photo ID at the polls, which would have especially burdened poor people and people of color. But because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act still stands, this law was defeated and the right to vote was protected. Reverend Simeon L. Queen of Houston, Texas, a comrade in the struggle, reflected: "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."

Since 1980 I have been fortunate to work with men and women, some who started before I was born, to fight for laws protecting the right to vote. Despite the commitment of those who devoted their lives to voter protections, the right to vote remains fragile for many Americans. From voter ID laws to restrictions on early voting, as a country we cannot allow anyone to say "this isn't a problem anymore" to communities who are experiencing, as others witness, those problems at the polls each election. 

PFAW Foundation

Voting Discrimination: Still an Obstacle to Democracy

This week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging the protections of the Voting Rights Act. Based on a simple idea, one that is enshrined in our Constitution, the right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of race. It is considered by the Department of Justice to be "the most effective civil rights statute enacted by Congress," prohibiting voting discrimination in order to protect the right to vote for all Americans.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he called the vote "the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice" and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it the "foundation stone for political action." I call it a sacred right!

The centerpiece of that Act and the case is Section 5. It requires that all or portions of sixteen states with a history and a contemporary record of voting discrimination seek and gain approval federally before they put any changes in election practices into effect. Preclearance as it is known is intended to stop voter disenfranchisement before it can start.

In 1970 and again in 1975, Congress voted to extend the Voting Rights Act. At that time US Representative Barbara Jordan, my (s)hero and co-founder of People For the American Way, sponsored legislation that broadened the provisions of the Act to include Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.

As recently as 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to reauthorize Section 5 of the law with some critics then and now misguidedly asserting that it overstepped its boundaries, that voting discrimination really isn't a problem anymore, or that voting discrimination in other parts of the country somehow delegitimizes Section 5. I'd like to invite those critics to hear directly from people across the country who devoted countless hours to ensuring that marginalized communities were able to vote this past election.

In 2011 and 2012 I organized faith leaders from 22 states in combating voter suppression efforts and turning out the vote among specific communities. This election cycle offered many powerful reminders why Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is still needed. Texas, for example, passed a discriminatory voter ID law that would have required voters to present government-issued photo ID at the polls, which would have especially burdened poor people and people of color. But because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act still stands, this law was defeated and the right to vote was protected. Reverend Simeon L. Queen of Houston, Texas, a comrade in the struggle, reflected: "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."

Since 1980 I have been fortunate to work with men and women, some who started before I was born, to fight for laws protecting the right to vote. Despite the commitment of those who devoted their lives to voter protections, the right to vote remains fragile for many Americans. From voter ID laws to restrictions on early voting, as a country we cannot allow anyone to say "this isn't a problem anymore" to communities who are experiencing, as others witness, those problems at the polls each election.

President Johnson called the vote "a powerful instrument," Dr. King the "foundation stone," and for me it's a sacred right for breaking down injustice, removing obstacles to democracy and empowering the dis-empowered. When discriminatory laws threaten Americans' fundamental right to vote, we are called to utilize every tool available. Across the country we have seen the importance of courts in successfully fighting back against voter suppression efforts. Section 5 remains a key to protecting communities, my community from future attempts at disenfranchisement. Hopefully, prayerfully, the Supreme Court will realize this.

 This post originally appeared at the Huffington Post.

 

PFAW Foundation

Anonymous Attacks Against LA Progressives

This summer, an organization called Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) finds itself the target of dozens of baseless public records requests instigated by an anonymous right wing entity apparently seeking to intimidate and harass the organization.

LAANE has long fought for policies to raise wages, protect the environment, and enhance community input on new box stores. In other words, they have gotten in the way when giant corporations have put profit maximization over the rights of workers, consumers, and communities. Perhaps that is why they now find themselves the subject of an extensive fishing expedition for public records that can be taken out of context and demagogued ad nauseam.

An opposition research company that has worked with conservative candidates and causes in California has sent dozens of letters to public officials across the state demanding all communications between LAANE and more than 70 public officials going back a number of years.

So who hired the opposition research firm? Who is it that is apparently hoping to use public disclosure laws to do a hatchet job on LAANE?

Good question, since they refuse to identify themselves.

At least when conservatives in Wisconsin and Michigan used baseless public records requests to intimidate and harass academics at public universities, we knew which far right pro-corporate entities were doing it (ALEC and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy).

In light of the numerous deceptive actions designed to destroy Planned Parenthood, ACORN, NPR, and Shirley Sherrod, it is more important than ever to fight right wing efforts to smear people and organizations who they see as standing in the way of their agenda.

People For the American Way stands with LAANE in demanding an end to the anonymous attack, and you can, too, by signing this petition calling on those who are behind the attack on LAANE to reveal their identities. Democracy is strengthened by the free and robust exchange of ideas and arguments, not by anonymous efforts to intimidate and discredit those who disagree with you.

PFAW

On Ellis Island, African American Ministers Leadership Council Are First to Sign Immigration Reform Covenant

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.
 

PFAW

The Pew and the Bench: A Faith Summit on the Federal Judiciary

Today, there was a panel at the Religious Action Center discussing the role of religious communities in debates over judicial nominees. Joi Orr, program assistant with People for the American Way’s African American Religious Affairs department spoke about the role of the religious vote and what People for the American Way is currently doing around judicial nominations.

Other panelists included: Nancy Zirkin from the Leadership Conference on civil rights, Jim Wimkler from the general board of the United Methodist Church, Holly Hollman from the general counsel of the Baptist joint committee, Sammie Moshenberg from the National Council of Jewish Women, Rick Foltin from the American Jewish Committee and Mark Pelavin from the Religious Action Center.

Panelists briefly discussed how their organizations reach various faith communities, and reiterated the importance of having strong judicial candidates for these lifetime position. Joi summarized the work that the African American Religious Affairs department is accomplishing with regards to judicial nominations.

The ministers programs were founded to act out of the prophetic vein of the Black Church. So I will say, that we do not claim to speak on behalf of the entire black church, because it is not a homogeneous group. We particularly advocate and represent the marginalized, disenfranchised, and outcast. So like the prophet Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we advocate with a liberal reading of the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. That’s what the prophetic black church has done throughout history. We rejected the “slaves obey your masters” rhetoric of the New Testament, while embracing the nation’s sacred documents that purport to stand for liberty and justice for all. And I want to underscore the word all. Because the truly prophetic black church is inclusive in its advocacy. That’s why MLK was an integrationist. That’s why as an organization we work on fair public education for all of our children, fair comprehensive immigration reform, and LGBT rights, because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

PFAW