I’ve been a congregation member at Friendship-West Baptist Church, in Dallas, Texas, for over 20 years. I have been on the staff for over 16, guiding our advocacy and activism around social justice issues. We believe that the right to vote is sacred. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about our governor and legislature.
In early September, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law an anti-democratic and unlawful voting bill that attempts to sabotage the emergence of a new Texas, where no racial group unfairly holds a monopoly on power. The law makes it harder for voters with language limitations and disabilities to get assistance when casting their ballot, bans drive-thru and 24-hour voting, and emboldens poll watchers to intimidate voters and election officials (while at the same time limiting what election workers can do to stop this misconduct). Black and brown communities will bear the brunt of this new law.
We couldn’t stand by as this injustice was perpetrated against our congregants, other Texas voters, and potential Texas voters. That’s why our church is suing the state to stop some of the law’s worst provisions from taking effect.
This case is far from our first involvement with protecting voting rights and access. In some ways, it could be seen as a culmination of what we’ve been doing for decades. We are over 12,000 members strong and are humbled to serve our community in Dallas through voter engagement efforts. We hold voter registration drives and answer congregants’ questions about elections, produce voting guides, hold candidate forums, help recruit election judges and clerks, and organize rides to the polls. Last year, our church was one of Dallas County’s several “super-voting centers,” so called for their capacity to take in a large volume of voters. We also partner with local, statewide, and national organizations to amplify voting rights initiatives in Texas and beyond.
In October, I witnessed a caravan of more than 400 cars outside our church, lining up to attend a two-hour “Get Out the Vote” rally and voter education event. The sight reminded me of the power of our ancestors. They fought hard to gain access to the ballot and those who remain steadfast in preserving the gains from a previous generation honor their memory. The excitement and urgency at the event were palpable. People were there responding to incidents of police violence, anti-Black sentiments in the news and on social media, to the ridiculous claims of voter fraud already coming from the White House, and because they understood that change starts at the polls. And now, because of this horrendous new law, we have to go to court to defend the right to vote.
The congregants at Friendship-West know how much blood was spilled, sacrifices made, and lives lost to achieve this fundamental democratic right and why the forces of hate and reaction have been trying to limit it for over 150 years. We’ve prayed that love would conquer hate and that we could all agree in a democracy that we should make it as easy to vote as possible. We all deserve a voice in how we’re governed. Still, many of those who govern us think otherwise. And it is our God-given right to fight for unencumbered access to the ballot and freedom to live in a democracy free of intimidation and unjust laws.
Taking on this fight, I am particularly inspired by one of my sheroes, Fannie Lou Hamer. She served Christ by serving her people. She knew that God was on the side of the oppressed, providing solace to those who only wanted to be treated with respect and as human beings. She clearly understood the intersection of faith and public life. We owe her so much. As a faith institution, we feel responsible for speaking on and advocating for the issues and policies that affect our community and providing leadership in public life. Doing anything else would amount to theological malpractice.
Many of the legislators involved in writing this law claim that their faith undergirds how they pass laws and policy. The new legislation signed by Abbott is unchristian, and it discourages people from becoming election workers or voter assistance volunteers with threats of fines or jail time. Look at the law’s rules for being a voter assistor, for instance. The law criminalizes assistors if they receive compensation for helping voters, and “compensation” could mean receiving something as small as a snack offered by a voter. When assisting mail-in voters, errors in following these rules are punishable by up to two years in jail or up to $10,000 in fines. These laws are nothing more than a 21st century version of poll taxes: tactics to hinder access to the ballot and reduce participation in the political process.
When Abbott signed this bill, he exclaimed that “election integrity is now law in the state of Texas.” The coded and racist history of the term “election integrity” goes back decades. This language signaled to us and others that the fight for power and political representation is far from over, and the battle for the soul of this nation is still alive. At the law’s core, it is about maintaining the white power structure from the Texas Legislature down to municipalities. We cannot afford to go back. This new law is clearly an attack on cities with higher populations of Black and brown people, attempting to silence high turnout in urban areas that tend to vote a particular way.
Our state should be encouraging democratic participation. Instead, Texas is making it harder for vulnerable groups to vote and making it easier for those who want to suppress the vote of our congregants. Abbott was fixated on solving a problem that did not exist. Our faith compels us to act against injustice, and that is why Friendship-West Baptist Church is now fighting this unjust law in court.
To remix Hamer’s 1964 testimony before the Democratic National Committee’s Credentials Committee: if this law is upheld, I question America. Is this not the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to march, protest, rally, and testify before committees amid a global pandemic, all because we want to save our democracy?