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Faith Compels Us to Act Against Voter Suppression

A pastor challenging Texas’s new law explains why her church joined the Brennan Center’s lawsuit.

  • Pastor Danielle Ayers
October 25, 2021

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?