Thursday, November 19, 2009

D.C. Board of Elections Refuses to Put Human Rights to Vote: Statement of Faith Leader Rev. Cedric Harmon

I just blogged about a major news story that is being skewed by some media outlets with a vested interest in suppressing information that they do not intend to disseminate—to be specific, information that undercuts homophobia. I’d like to turn now to another major news story of the past week that further illustrates how such distortion of news undercutting homophobia takes place.

Tuesday, the Washington, D.C., Board of Elections rejected a proposed referendum that would have permitted citizens to put the right of marriage of gay citizens to a vote. The referendum was proposed by Stand for Marriage and Maryland clergyman Bishop Harry Jackson.

The D.C. Board of Elections rejected the referendum because it violates the Human Rights Act of the District of Columbia. As Michael Crawford, co-chair of D.C. for Marriage, noted in response to the Board’s decision, the equality of a particular group of citizens should never be put to a popular vote and decided by referendum.

What I really want to emphasize here is the reasoning offered by a member of a group of D.C. faith leaders to support the Board’s decision. Unfortunately—and this is something I also want to emphasize in this posting—the following statement by a member of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality has, to my knowledge, appeared in absolutely no mainstream media outlets.

In fact, the decision of the D.C. Board of Elections has not been widely reported in the mainstream media at all (AP carried a brief statement, and the Washington Post and New York Times did stories), though it comes right after the Maine initiative, in which the right of gay citizens of that state to marriage was put to popular vote. And what happened in Maine has been analyzed and analyzed again by one media source after another, as a statement about the impossibility of implementing same-sex marriage in a nation resolutely opposed to it.

The only media outlet that I’ve found reporting on the following significant statement of Rev. Cedric Harmon of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality is the 365Gay news site. Following Tuesday’s decision that putting the right of gay citizens of D.C. to a vote would violate the district’s Human Rights Act, 365Gay reported that Rev. Harmon made the following statement:

It is shameful when religious leaders fail to uphold the Christian teachings of our faith by trying to institutionalize a second-class citizenship on our neighbors. People of faith have worked for generations to achieve social justice for all people — regardless of race, creed, class, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. We serve our entire flock, and there is no justification under God that we should discriminate against any of God’s children.
The District of Columbia has not voted on the civil rights of a minority since the Civil War, when a majority prevented freed male slaves from gaining the right to vote. Today, the Board of Elections and Ethics reminded us that human rights should never be put to a vote. As members of the clergy who support equal rights for all citizens, and who struggle to achieve social justice in the District of Columbia, we applaud the BOEE for standing up for human rights in the face of discrimination.

It is shameful for people of faith to work to turn a minority group into second-class citizens. People of faith should work for justice for all people. The last time D.C. put the civil rights of a minority to popular vote was following the Civil War, when a majority vote withheld the right to vote from freed male slaves.

These are significant points, aren’t they? And pertinent points, in a nation with the soul of a church, where media coverage of issues like homosexuality is saturated with religious viewpoints. And where, with no historical memory at all about how popular referendums have been repeatedly used over the course of American history to deny rights to minority groups, many Americans are perfectly comfortable with the thought of voting away the rights of gay citizens today.

But Rev. Harmons statements entirely undercut one of the conclusions about religious affiliation that the mainstream media want to promote, when it comes to discussion of gay people and our place in American society today. The predominant meme is that to be church-affiliated is to be opposed to the human rights of gay folks. The predominant meme is also that to be African American and a member of a faith community is necessarily to stand in opposition to gay rights.

In the story unfolding in D.C., African Americans like Rev. Cedric Harmon and Michael Crawford stand on opposite sides of the fence from African Americans like Bishop Jackson. To be a person of color and a person of faith is not necessarily to stand against the human rights of gay persons.

In fact, the faith commitment of many churched people is precisely what compels them to stand in solidarity with their LGBT brothers and sisters. Whereas Rev. Bernice King, the new president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says that her “sanctified soul” tells her to oppose gay rights, Rev. Eric P. Lee of the Los Angeles SCLC notes that his experience in the black church impels him to work for justice for his LGBT brothers and sisters:

While many disagree with same-sex relationships based on their respective faith-beliefs, it is those same beliefs that once justified slavery, segregation, legal discrimination and miscegenation laws. Our faith should not be used to discriminate, oppress or marginalize any group of people. Our faith should be used to affirm the dignity of everyone's humanity. Our faith should be used as a vehicle to justice, equality and freedom for all of God's people.
As African-Americans, we have long relied on the biblical stories of Israel's deliverance from oppression and slavery as our own story of deliverance from Western European slavery, segregation and discrimination. As civil rights advocates, and as bearers of the mantel left by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference must continue to advocate for justice for all people, regardless of social status, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

Rev. Cedric Harmon’s statement about the refusal of the D.C. Board of Elections to put the rights of a vulnerable minority to the vote deserves national attention—and it’s telling that this statement is being ignored by the mainstream media. Speaking out of the experience of historic oppression and reading the bible through the optic of this oppression, many African-American people of faith find it impossible to justify faith-based exclusion and faith-based oppression of other minority groups.

The memory of oppression endured by Christians of color in the U.S. also comprises the bitter memory of having one’s rights repeatedly put to popular vote, always with the same deplorable outcome. When the rights of minority groups are put to popular vote, one can predict that the majority will, in all likelihood, deny or remove the rights of the minority. In a nation whose entire political system is grounded in foundational documents that assure rights to all human beings simply because they are human, it is obscene to permit the rights of any targeted minority to be put to a vote.

And it is particularly obscene when those pushing for such an action are people of faith who claim that they are acting in fidelity to scriptures that are all about love, mercy, and justice, and healing the wounds of the world. Not making them deeper.