Thursday, June 27, 2013

Blind Justice and the Voting Rights Act

The Supreme Court of the United States undermined years of progress toward the goal of racial justice when it struck down the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Passed into law after a peaceful march from Selma to the statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama, ended with protesters being gassed, clubbed and bullwhipped by rioting police troopers, the Voting Rights Act ended the shameful legacy of Jim Crow at the polls that had barred generations of African Americans from exercising their franchise across the South.
The majority of Justices appeared to have no sense of this history.  Chief Justice John Roberts, for example, has simplistically asserted that the “way to stop racial discrimination is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” as if the pretense of being colorblind—closing our eyes to the realities of racism—will make it go away.  Writing for the majority, Roberts reasoned that the Voting Rights statute, which required federal approval for changes in electoral procedures for nine states in old Dixie and for scores of jurisdictions in the North that had track records of voter suppression, no longer reflects current conditions.  Massachusetts today, Roberts said, has more problems with voter discrimination than Mississippi.

Really?  Mississippi like many Southern states been trying hard to pass restrictive new voting requirements that will disproportionately keep the poor and people of color from the polls.  A Mississippi initiative written last year by State Representative Joey Fillingane (R), for instance, would require citizens to present a photo ID before they can cast a ballot, with the Catch-22 that in order to get a photo ID, a birth certificate is needed (and the only way to request a birth certificate in Mississippi is to present a photo ID.)   How different is this initiative from those pre-civil-rights-era “literacy tests” that required black voters to recite the U.S. Constitution from memory or guess how many bubbles were in a bar of soap?  Up until last week,  Representative Fillingane’s initiative, which was approved by a majority of the state’s voters, could not be enacted without an okay from the U.S. Department of Justice.  Now, thanks to John Roberts and his cohorts, Mississippi is poised to act, just like Texas, which within hours of the Court’s ruling announced it would institute electoral re-districting that, up until that moment, had been blocked for discriminating against black and Latino voters.

This ruling is not just shameful.  It is naked power politics, intended to reduce turnout among constituencies that have traditionally voted Democratic, exercised by the one branch of government that is supposed to rise above partisan agendas.
The Goddess of Justice is traditionally portrayed wearing a blindfold, meaning that distinctions of race, ethnicity, and income mean nothing before the bar of truth.  But the purported “color-blindness” of John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonio Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kenney is a cynical pose that suggests another meaning, as in Langston Hughes’ poem:

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gay Marriage A Blessing For Us All

Whatever the Supreme Court rules this week, gay marriage appears to be headed toward legal affirmation.  A dozen states now embrace the principle of marital equality, with polls showing over half of all Americans in favor of equal rites.

There is almost an element of inevitability here, because gay partnerships that are long-term, responsible and mutually committed are a fact of life.  Trying to prohibit or annul these relationships by constitutional amendment is like trying to overturn Newton’s laws through legislative edict.  Same-sex marriage exists--like the law of gravity.  The only question is whether these relationships will receive the full range of protections and benefits that heterosexual marriages receive.  More and more Americans are inclined to answer yes. 

As a minister, I’ve been performing these unions for years.   Way back in 1997, the church I served in Burlington, Vermont, went on record by filing an amicus brief on behalf of two same-sex couples who had petitioned the state Supreme Court for the right to wed.  That opened the door to a court ruling creating Civil Unions—equivalent to marriage in all but name--in the Green Mountain State back in 2000.   What seemed radical then has now become tame.

I recall when our legislature was debating the issue.  Vermont had become a national battleground, and roadsides were littered with placards pro and con.  The statehouse was packed for the hearings.  Most of those testifying against gay marriage cited scripture or church teaching.  In contrast, those testifying in favor talked about their families—sons and daughters denied the right to visit their dying lovers in the hospital, or unable to receive an inheritance, or enjoy the tax advantages that come with married status.  One side used the vocabulary of rulebooks and dogmatic authority.  The other spoke in the language of equity and compassion.  There was little communication between the two, which seemed a pity.

For I have always supported marriage equality on traditionalist grounds, because I so vigorously support the institution of matrimony, which is decline.  A recent report by the Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, for example, found that “by age 25, 44 percent of women have had a baby, while only 38 percent have married.”  Anyone concerned about the next generation should be alarmed, for while single parent households can be as nurturing and healthy as any (and I was raised by a single mom, after my father died), we know that kids born outside of marriage are at higher risk for falling into poverty, dropping out of school, and falling behind their peers by almost every measure.  In these circumstances, shouldn’t we be acting to strengthen stable families and support healthy marriages?

Against the atomizing forces of modern life--the “every man for himself” ethic of the marketplace, the politics of division, the cult of privatizing everything from Social Security to public utilities and natural resources--everything possible must be done to sustain our social fabric: to care for our families, our children, our neighborhoods, our communities, our environment.  That’s why, regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, I’ll continue to bless and consecrate the bonds of human interdependence, be they gay or straight.