Don’t Boycott this Bus! Transporting voters on megachurch buses not a constitutional violation

“God damn it white people,” commenter sowhatiswhat2 railed on the blog Fortress America last Tuesday. “Get over the fact that people of color are just as human as you are and have as much of a right to the benefits that their American citizenship confers upon them as you do.”  This response to Adam Weinstein’s post, “Georgia Lawmaker Vows to End Early Voting Because Blacks Vote that Way,” was a personal favorite of mine.

It all began when news broke that DeKalb County, Georgia, was going to add an early-voting day on Sunday, October 26, and that one of three new polling places was at the Gallery at South DeKalb, a busy shopping mall frequented by African-American shoppers. Georgia State Senator Fran Millar, a Republican, took to Facebook to complain about adding the Sunday, noting that the mall was also near several African-American megachurches. He questioned whether they would use church buses to transport voters to the polls and said, “If this happens, so much for the accepted principle of separation of church and state.” Then, in a comment to the post, he wrote: “I would prefer more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters.” While one can be sure he wasn’t insinuating that churchgoers are less educated (this is the Bible Belt after all), Sen. Millar has now rightly come under attack from media as well as religious leaders.

Millar’s comments left a very bad taste in my mouth too. First of all, the senator occupies an elected position of power, leadership, and authority. To say that a church using its private buses to transport its members to a polling station is a matter of church/state separation is unimpressive. If these are private buses, the church may transport whomever they wish wherever they wish. And let’s be clear: these megachurches must not endorse any particular candidate or any particular political party. What they can and should insist upon is for their members’ votes to be counted, in line with what is rightfully theirs under voting rights legislation. Communities in Georgia know all too well the price paid for these rights.

Secondly, in his Facebook post Millar states, “I have spoken with Representative Jacobs and we will try to eliminate this election law loophole in January.” His vehement dislike of the so-called loophole has to do with the location of the polling cite and also the day. Sunday voting would create more voters (and says nothing about their education level). But what does Millar contend is the problem: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy?”

Should we get rid of Friday-Saturday voting, too, so that we don’t offend our Muslim or Jewish neighbors? I asked Mandisa Thomas, president of Black Nonbelievers and coordinator for the Atlanta Coalition of Reason about her opinion on this matter, and she was unequivocal with her concerns: “Senator Millar’s statements reek of a still strongly held view that is rampant in the South among whites—one that looks down on blacks. His presumptuous remarks about ‘educated’ voters and the area churches imply that blacks aren’t capable of being informed about representatives and the issues, and that somehow the voting process is being rigged. Unless he has evidence to prove this, his words are nothing but racist speculation.”

Alongside Thomas, the response of Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, who heads Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, brings added light to the discussion: “Sunday voting, as a logical extension of early voting, offers a common-sense correction to low voter turnout by affording ordinary families who cannot so easily get to the polls during their work-a-day lives another opportunity to exercise that basic and sacred American right—the right to vote.” Warnock isn’t denigrating “work-a-day” citizens: he is a minister, concerned for his community, and is trying to keep them from being marginalized any further. Furthermore, the pastor is keen to use the opportunities of having polling places near African-American megachurches to allow their communities to exercise their right to vote, despite the senator’s complaint about partisan tactics to move the polling stations to those places—something all parties do, including his own.

The celebrated philosopher Dr. Cornel West said in Race Matters, “Of course, the aim of a constitutional democracy is to safeguard the rights of the minority and avoid the tyranny of the majority.” Echoing West, a Facebook response to Sen. Millar was issued by journalist George Chidi: “…Stop complaining about how black people vote and start listening to the interests of black voters. Your party prefers to call black voters names rather than calling them for their vote.” Humanist Manifesto III: Humanism and its Aspirations clearly speaks about the value and importance of the democratic process to humanists: “Humanists are concerned for the well-being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.”  As a humanist, I fully support diversity and the right for everyone to exercise their democratic and legal right to represent their views through voting. I stand in solidarity with Rev. Dr. Warnock, Dr. West, Ms. Thomas, Mr. Chidi, and anyone else who feels as if this incident serves to humiliate African-American voters.

I find it ironic that after the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom Rides, buses are still being used to transport people for the purpose of advancing justice and equality.