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'Sacrilegious': Faith leaders fight wave of voting restrictions

By
Pamela Manson
A voter carries her ballot at an Atlanta polling location in the January Senate runoff. File Photo by Tami Chappell/UPI
A voter carries her ballot at an Atlanta polling location in the January Senate runoff. File Photo by Tami Chappell/UPI | License Photo

June 3 (UPI) -- When state legislatures began passing bills to impose new voting restrictions, clergy members and faith groups fought back. They've been rallying public opposition to the legislation, lobbying elected officials to pass bills that expand access to the polls and filing lawsuits against those they say are unconstitutional and designed to suppress the vote.

Their advocacy of voting rights is not just political but also religious.

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The Rev. Jennifer Butler, CEO and founder of Faith in Public Life, said every human being has a God-given right to vote.

"The idea that we would deny people a voice in how we legislate and who represents us is sacrilegious to us," Butler said of laws that restrict voting access.

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She also criticized a recently enacted Georgia law banning "line warming," or providing free water and food to people who are in line to cast their ballots. In the 2018 and 2020 elections, it took many voters hours to reach the voting booth.

"Jesus said, 'I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was hungry and you fed me.' People were waiting for hours and hours, and to be denying them of food and drink is just lacking in compassion. It goes against the very basic biblical principles," Butler said.

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The Washington, D.C.-based organization has put together state networks of thousands of religious leaders of numerous faiths -- Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and others -- to pursue social justice and the common good. Its Faithful Voter program works to educate congregants on the importance of voting for their community's values and well-being.

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In addition, Faith in Public Life is calling for Congress to promote a "holy recovery" through the passage of the For the People Act, which would create automatic voter registration and expand access to early and absentee voting, and President Joe Biden's American Jobs and Families Plan.

Supporters of measures to tighten voting requirements say the provisions protect election integrity and fight voter fraud. Opponents counter that the laws, as well as similar bills introduced in other states since Biden's election, are meant to discourage voting by certain citizens, including people of color.

'Precious, almost holy' votes

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In Texas, clergy members were among the opponents pushing back against legislation that would impose strict voting requirements.

The sweeping bill was approved Saturday by the state Senate but blocked when Democrats in the Texas House staged a walkout an hour before a midnight deadline on Sunday, which denied their Republican counterparts the quorum they needed to vote on the measure.

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The Democratic Party said its members used Texas House rules to stop the passage of the Republicans' "restrictive, anti-voter legislation that makes it harder for seniors, people who are disabled and people of color to vote."

The bill includes bans on drive-through and 24-hour voting; restrictions on early and curbside voting; a $1,000-a-day fine on local election officials who do not follow procedures for updating their voter rolls; expansion of the power of partisan poll watchers; and a limit on Sunday early voting to between 1 and 9 p.m., which would hurt "Souls to the Polls" efforts to get worshipers to vote after services and hit Black churches particularly hard.

At an April 7 live-streamed news conference outside the Capitol in Austin, clergy spoke out against the legislation. Groups represented at the event included Texas Impact-Texas Faith for Fair Elections, Dallas Black Clergy, Faith Commons and Muslim Space.

The Rev. Frederick Haynes III, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, said some in Texas government leadership have the same mindset that upheld "Jim and Jane Crow segregation." The pastor said the group was making a moral appeal for lawmakers to abandon their efforts at voter suppression.

The Rev. Irie Lynne Session, co-pastor of The Gathering, a church in Dallas, said as a follower of Jesus Christ, her responsibility "is to do what I can to ensure that the people that I serve have the freedom to vote unhindered, unrestricted by laws that make absolutely no sense."

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And Rabbi Neil Blumofe, of Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, said he has served as an alternate election judge in Travis Country and was inspired by how each vote was held "precious, almost holy."

Blumofe said that in holy scripture, the children of Israel are to be given a half-shekel each as part of a census but that procedure also could be considered an early form of voting.

"Each person in the camp, no matter their background and station, offers the same half-shekel -- each offers a vote -- a testament to the fitness of the camp itself," Blumofe said. "As citizens, it is our job to protect our democracy. By voting, we exercise our inalienable right to choose our government."

'Burdensome' requirements

Faith leaders in Georgia have gone to court seeking to overturn provisions they allege are unconstitutional in a sweeping election bill that was signed into law on March 25. In addition to banning line warming, the measure imposes "new and burdensome" voter ID requirements, limits ballot drop boxes and allows the state to take over local elections.

A provision to eliminate Sunday voting was dropped, and the measure requires at least two Saturday early voting days, an increase of one from the previous law.

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The Sixth District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Georgia Muslim Voter Project are among the plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits. AME Bishop Reginald T. Jackson is leading a call for a boycott of corporations based in the state that did not speak out against the law.

The suit, filed March 29 in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, says encouraging the AME Church's eligible members to vote has been a priority of the church. Having line warmers hand out food and water to voters, regardless of how they plan to cast their ballot, reminds them that voting is a joyful thing and a civic responsibility, according to the suit.

"The state's ban on these activities will thus not only result in the arrests of Black clergymen and lay leaders, it will materially aggravate the already severe burdens inflicted by this legislation specifically, especially, and disparately upon Black voters, and other poor voters of color from similarly situated communities, who rely on 'line warming' to make it through interminable delays to cast a ballot," the suit alleges.

The suit seeks a declaration that the challenged provisions are illegal and unconstitutional and an order barring them from being utilized in any elections.

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A religious act

Richard Luedeman, an assistant clinical professor of law at the University of Connecticut School of Law, said voting can credibly be called a religious act for many.

The main determinant under federal and many states' religious freedom statutes of what is "religion" is an individual's sincere beliefs, even if they are nontraditional or politically tinged, Luedeman said. Those beliefs could include the strongly held conviction that people should vote to help achieve certain outcomes, he said.

"That could manifest in a pro-life individual who votes in response to profound concern for the sanctity of unborn lives and, thus, the composition of Supreme Court or, conversely, in a death penalty opponent, who votes out of concern for the sanctity of all lives," Luedeman said. "It could manifest in a QAnon adherent who thinks Donald Trump has been divinely chosen to deliver us from evil. Or it could be a more conventional manifestation, such as Souls to the Polls. As long as the individual subjectively regards it as a religious motivation, our religious freedom laws should apply."

Luedeman said that if litigants start filing claims of religious liberty violations based on their right to vote, those cases might be part of class actions involving groups in swing states with the same motivations for voting.

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"If the claims get traction in lower courts, I would not be surprised if the issue ultimately makes it to the Supreme Court," he added.

An essay by Luedeman on voting as a religious act is slated to be published later this summer in the University of California Davis Law Review.

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