Civil Rights and Liberties: An Issue of Faith? – Rev. J. Bennett Guess – Stern Social Action Lecture on Yom Kippur 5778

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is adapted from the lecture, “Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: An Issue of Faith?” delivered by the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, Executive Director, ACLU of Ohio, as the Milton & Ruth Stern Social Action Lecture on Yom Kippur, Saturday, September 30, 2017 at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. We encourage you to share comments below and to post the link to this blog to social media such as Twitter or Facebook, to continue the conversations this lecture engenders.

In 1981, after three grueling months of scooping ice cream at a local Baskin-Robbins store, I finally landed my dream job during my first year of high school, working as a “runner” for the prestigious law firm of King, Deep and Branaman, the largest law firm in my hometown of Henderson, Ky.

“Runner” meant that I was basically an errand boy, who wore a dress shirt and tie, delivering documents to be filed at the County Court House and gathering urgent signatures from other attorneys and judges around town. This was long before email and the internet, so “runners” like myself found this to be exciting and gainful employment. I also cleaned out closets, and shelved books in the law library, among other assigned tasks.

I say “dream job,” because at a young age I was already obsessed with politics and issues of social justice and public policy so, for me, that meant only one thing: I was destined to become a lawyer – because only lawyers care about justice, right? – so, working at a law firm, hanging around lawyers, and dressing like them, felt like I was well on my way.

I worked part-time at King, Deep and Branaman, on and off for more than eight years – during summers, after school and holiday breaks — all the way through high school and college. And as I got older, I was entrusted with other responsibilities, like doing research, taking notes at meetings, and drafting letters.

Somewhere along the way, I was told kindly that I had a job there anytime my school schedule would allow, a generous offer of mentorship that I now look back upon with enormous gratitude. Mr. Deep even went so far as to use up a political favor and secure for me a coveted summer internship in the Washington, D.C., office of then-democratic U.S. Senator Walter D. Huddleston, but that particular internship never happened, because that November, a fellow named Mitch McConnell defeated Senator Huddleston, making that election utterly personal for me, and thus how I arrived earlier than any of you in my dislike for the now Senate Majority Leader.

I often talked with Mr. Deep and Mr. Branaman about my future, and their career path for me was clear.  I was to attend law school and then return to my hometown and join King, Deep and Branaman as a young associate. It sounded like a good plan to me, too.

Yet, in the mid-1980s, as a student at the University of Kentucky, I became involved in campus protests against U.S. military intervention in Central America, and particularly U.S. involvement in widespread human rights abuses there. One afternoon, a teaching assistant, whom I had met at a protest, handed me a slim book called, “An Introduction to Liberation Theology,” written by a Roman Catholic theologian, Leonardo Boff of Brazil. I read the entire thing that very night.

Although I was raised as a practicing Christian, that little book changed my life – and the vocational direction of my life – because it argued so convincingly that advancing justice is inseparable from the life of faith, because God has a preferential option for the oppressed, for the poor and marginalized. God is not impartial. God takes sides, and we are called to be and do the same.

To this day, I look back and wonder how it was possible that I could have spent my first 20 years of life sitting in worship services, as an inherently socially conscious person, and never made clear the connection between the radical messages being read aloud each week and the work I longed to be about in the world. But it happens, you know!

“Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Defend the rights of the poor and needy,” we read in Proverbs. (31:8-9)

“How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws, and those who write laws that make life hard for people,” the prophet Isaiah warned. “They are not fair to the poor, and they rob people of their rights. They allow people to steal from widows and to take from orphans what really belongs to them.” (10:1-2)

Not long after I read that little book, “An Introduction to Liberation Theology,” I found myself requesting graduate school catalogues from Divinity Schools, instead of Law Schools, and one of the most nerve-racking lunches I ever sat through was the one where I had to tell Mr. Deep, my hometown mentor, that I would be attending Vanderbilt Divinity School in the fall, and not the law school.

He was supportive, and told me that there was only one field he respected more than the law, and that was religion. He was just being nice.

But now for me, nearly 30 years in, I’ve found that lawyers and clergy aren’t all that dissimilar. We each study revered, misunderstood ancient and historical texts, shrouded in intrigue and written in racist and sexist times. Both Scripture and the Constitution can be so tightly wrapped in and warped by popular sentimentality that their scandalous messages of freedom, justice and love are easily obscured and manipulated. We argue about meanings, interpretations, and applications; and the best among us are working toward justice for more people, while others, not so much.

(And parenthetically, while I’m at it, I have also found that both clergy and lawyers, alike, are highly regarded when you’re in desperate need of a good one, but otherwise, not so much.)

But now this clergyperson has found his way to the directorship of the ACLU of Ohio, which some people find interesting, because there’s this lingering false narrative that the ACLU is hostile to religion, when actually it is for religious freedom, for everyone, which is what the Constitution affirms. And I tell them that the ACLU was co-founded by a Unitarian minister in 1920, and that a Methodist minister served as president for its first 20 years. Right now, the ACLU of Colorado and Iowa, as well as Ohio, are headed by clergy. We join a long tradition of religious leaders, social workers, educators, journalists, policy analysts, artists, students, business leaders, and lawyers, who believe that protecting civil liberties and advancing civil rights is everyone’s responsibility.

If we only leave it to the lawyers, God love them, we are missing the point that “We, the people” means all of us. The ACLU’s urgent work is teaching and safeguarding that lofty, inclusive constitutional principle until it is realized for everyone.

While the ACLU is known for its high-profile litigation, litigation is just one piece of the ACLU’s integrated approach, with education, advocacy, lobbying and grassroots mobilization being equally important to advancing our mission. And could the ACLU’s mission be any more important than today? Oh my, “for such a time as this!”

When Donald Trump was elected president, having espoused during the campaign so many frightening and blatantly unconstitutional promises, having fanned the flames of disgusting racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, Islamophobia, Transphobia, xenophobia of every imaginable kind – the non-partisan ACLU (who has challenged policies of every U.S. president over the past 100 years) placed a full-page ad in the New York Times, proclaiming boldly “We will see you in Court.”

And we are delivering on that promise. In the upcoming fall term, the ACLU has five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and in all five: the Trump Administration in on one side, and the ACLU is on the other.

One of the five cases is our own voting purge case in Ohio, where the ACLU of Ohio has successfully prevented Secretary of State John Husted from continuing his plan to initiate the purge process for those who don’t vote in a two-year period, a direct violation of the bipartisan National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

For nearly 25 years, the Department of Justice (under both Democratic and Republican administrations) has supported the NVRA’s efforts to expand voting rights, but under Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, the DOJ has now reversed itself, supporting removing people from the voting rolls, even when state records make clear that citizens have not moved or in any other way jeopardized their constitutional rights. The right to vote is seriously under attack in this country, and those most impacted are people of color and the poor. We are fighting back.

Also, right now in the land of the free, thousands of people are behind held in jails as they fight deportation, but are being refused any hearings to get them released from jail while their cases are being considered. This administration supports locking people up, with no conviction, for indeterminable periods of time. The ACLU does not, because we support the Constitution and due process of law.

And for the first time in this nation’s history, the U.S. Department of Justice has done a complete 180 and is arguing before the nation’s highest court that people should be exempt from abiding by non-discrimination laws, if they claim religion as their reason.

This is our own justice department claiming that denying services, because you are personally offended by someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, that is permissible, because it’s a form of “free speech,” they now say.  The ACLU argues that stance is perversion of the First Amendment and long-established principles of equality under the law.

These are perilous times in our democracy, and I don’t know about you but when this Administration, from day 1, started excluding people’s entrance into this nation based solely upon their religion (as Trump promised to do during the campaign);

or when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers – at this Administration’s insistence — started rounding up millions of people in this country, physically separating parents from their young children, caregivers from their disabled and dependent loved ones;

or when this Administration announced that brave transgender military personnel would no longer be allowed to serve their country;

or when it acted to render LGBTQ people invisible in the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census;

I have been so proud and grateful – grateful! — that something like a strong ACLU exists and stands at the ready to fight back, to resist.

And when this occupant of the White House saw during his campaign how vile anti-Semitism and racism were being used to fuel his election, and to sow great fear in impacted communities, like your own, he winked at it, and he used his 140 characters to send message after message, that such behavior was alright by him; or when he made a moral equivalency between KKK, neo-Nazi white supremacists and those who were standing for inclusion, kindness and equality,

I was so grateful that courageous congregations like yours, and impactful organizations like the ACLU were there – are here – to say “not in our name” and “not on our watch.”

We cannot let down our guard. And we must meet hate speech with more speech, making visible to the American public and the world that people of goodwill, people of faith, and people of conscience, greatly outnumber those who would seek to divide, denigrate, incarcerate, purge, deport, and lie their way into unchecked power.

But at the same time, we would be greatly fooling ourselves if thought the policies of this president alone were the only things in need of our focused attention. Because apart from him, and even long before him, unjust laws and policies in Ohio and in our nation have been put into place that perpetuate great injustice, police brutality, mass incarceration, and the prison industrial complex.

More than 60 percent of people who are sitting in Ohio’s jails right now have not been convicted of any crime.  They’re just waiting for a hearing, or a trial, because they can’t afford the bail to get from behind bars – thus risking their family’s economic security, any employment or housing they might have had or would hope to return to.

And because 97 percent of all court cases are now resolved by plea bargains, with politically motivated prosecutors overseeing that process, if people can plead guilty to a crime that they did NOT commit that will at least get them out of the jail they’ve been sitting in for months. That’s an option, sometimes sadly the only option for some.

Marcus is 21 years old. He is African American. Not long ago, he was wearing a hoodie, with sagging pants, at a bus terminal in Dayton, where he was cited by transit police and detained for breaking RTA policy. But Marcus couldn’t pay the $150 bail, so he sat in jail for nine days, waiting for his family to come up with $150 to free him.  Finally, his mother was able to secure a car title loan so she could get him released. Now Marcus has an arrest record, likely a conviction, and he’s now unable to use public transportation to get to work or school. And he’s in the system, just the way the system was set up for people like him.

And there’s not a person in this room who believes for a second that had I been wearing a hoodie at the same bus terminal would that have ever happened to me.

The ACLU of Ohio has prioritized efforts that will reduce mass incarceration, like bail reform, and provide more fairness and equity in our criminal justice system.

At the same time, we are at the center of the fight to protect access to abortion services in Ohio, to enact LGBTQ civil rights legislation in Ohio, to dismantle the private prison industry in Ohio, to safeguard free speech on college campuses in Ohio, and on and on.

Even if not for Trump, and even if Hillary Clinton had been elected, a strong ACLU would still be needed and necessary here in Ohio, and all across the nation. Because “freedom is never free” or comes easily, and “the cost of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Many of you, when you think of the ACLU and its brand, you think of safeguarding the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, for all Americans, even those whose ideas we detest and vehemently disagree. You understand that protecting free speech, assembly, and protest, and due process under the law, is an unwavering ACLU commitment. And you could not be more right.

Yet, some of you, who – in the era of Trump – see the ACLU as a leader in advocating for people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ persons, persons with disabilities, and for reproductive freedom, you recognize that the mission of the ACLU is clearly focused on equity – toward racial, gender, and sexual justice. You, too, are right.

I firmly believe that safeguarding hard-fought civil liberties and expanding civil rights is equally the ACLU’s work. Because, simply stated, no other organization does this work more consistently, because we know the government – particularly this government – would love nothing more than for us to abdicate those absolute rights and give government the control over who and what we can say or protest.

A couple of weeks ago, we were contacted by a high school newspaper in a community about an hour south of Cleveland, asking us to comment on a poll taken by their school newspaper, finding that 57.3 percent of students – a clear majority – felt that local, state and federal governments should regulate who can and cannot protest.

As a gay man of a certain age, and a student of history, that both amazes and frightens me.

If not for the ACLU, and allies like Fairmount Temple, which work every day, in so many ways, to teach and embody the principles of our democracy, it surely would fall. And, by all indications, it’s already quite wobbly.

Fred Craddock was an amazing storytelling and distinguished professor at Emory University in Atlanta. He would tell about, as a child, remembering his parents pulling the family car over to the side of the road and getting out to read roadside monuments about people who had given their lives for their country.  And Fred said he used to daydream about what that would be like to give your life away for something. He visualized standing in front of a firing squad, with death staring right at him.

And, in his fantasies, he would always proclaim something profound, brave and courageous, and eternally quotable. And then his mind would fast-forward to an image of a big impressive stone monument that would say “This is where Fred gave his life.” And people would travel there on family vacations, and kids with runny noses and dripping ice cream cones would run up to the monument and climb on it, and parents would say, “Stand still, kiddos, let us get your picture where Fred gave his life.”

Oh my, how impressive that would be. To give away your life!

But he said no one ever told him that there’s another way you give your life away, and that’s one day, one hour, one meeting, one visit, one conversation, one petition, one long lecture, at a time.

We don’t just write one big check that says “my life” and then we’re done, he said, but life is a series of many, many little checks, written over the course of many, many years: $12.78 and $32.50. And that’s what adds up, or doesn’t.

We love to think that, if asked, “Would you drink from this bitter cup?” we would grab that goblet so courageously and drink it all down in one big gulp. But, that’s not the way it happens, it’s a sip here, a sip there, a sip today, a sip tomorrow, until the end of our time. That’s what changing the world, and giving away your life, really looks like.

Rabbi Geoff Mittelman, whom I do not know but whose writing has inspired me, says most people in our culture associate with religion with one bland question: “Do you believe in God or not?” And he says that is neither a helpful nor useful question, and it only leads to woefully unproductive conversations.

Instead, he says the better religious questions, the ones that should pervade every single religious conversation – are these:

How can we create more justice and kindness in the world?

How can we create more moments of deep human connection?

Oh, to live and work and worship so that these are the questions most associated with the life of faith!

At a time when civil liberties are under daily threat, the free press is maligned at every opportunity, immigrants are threatened and scapegoated, systemic racism pervades all our social structures, and increasingly militarized police provoke fear rather than calm in the communities they serve, the ACLU’s mission has never been more urgent or compelling. It’s why I could not be more proud, as a minister and as a person of faith, to be working for the ACLU of Ohio, spending my days with committed people – like all of you – and across all religious and political spectrums, to safeguard and expand freedom.

Few things, for me, are as eternally important.