Felony Disenfranchisement Is a Humanist Issue

In the wide array of issues out there, felony disenfranchisement doesn’t rank very high on anyone’s list of priorities. Many states have laws that prohibit convicted felons from voting, sometimes even for life, and the outcry of protest is not very loud. But it should be.

As I explain in my latest Psychology Today piece, felony disenfranchisement raises questions relating not only to the universality of voting, but to longstanding issues of race and class as well. Voting is a basic right in a democracy, and the imperfect criminal justice system shouldn’t be deciding who can cast a vote. Those who have paid their dues to society should get to participate in the democratic process. For humanists and others who claim progressive values, it’s an important social justice issue.   Full story here.


Objecting to Iowa Governor’s Prayer Proclamation

Iowa’s governor has issued a proclamation encouraging citizens to participate in a four-day prayer marathon from June 30 to July 3. The proclamation is filled with religious assertions and historical inaccuracies. For example, it calls the Bible “the one true revelation from God.”

Not surprisingly, this kind of activity caught the attention of AHA’s followers, which brought it to the attention of our legal center. We sent our complaint to the governor today. More details here, including a link to our full complaint correspondence.


Latest church-state scuffle: Beebe, Arkansas

I had to contact the mayor of Beebe, Arkansas, this morning to register objections to his public endorsement of Christianity, complete with a message of city letterhead declaring his goal to “usher the presence of god and to celebrate the Christian message” via a city-sponsored event that will feature gospel musicians. The AHA’s press release, along with links to documents, is here.

It’s Not Democracy If You Can’t Vote

With a stroke of his pen on Friday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to over 200,000 convicted felons. The executive order allows full democratic participation for those who have completed their incarceration and any supervised probation or parole.

The public statement accompanying McAuliffe’s order directly addressed the invidious nature of laws denying voting rights to those convicted of crimes: “Across the South and in Virginia, felon disenfranchisement laws, together with poll taxes and literacy tests, have had a disproportionately negative impact on African American voters, and have at times been used intentionally to consolidate and preserve white control over the political process.”

Disenfranchisement laws are especially relevant in today’s America, which has spent the last three decades constructing a prison-industrial complex that has resulted in a culture of incarceration. The nation has only five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population, translating to an incarceration rate of over 700 per 100,000. Not only is this the world’s highest rate, but over half the countries in the world have rates below 150 per 100,000. Thus, denial of the right to vote to felons is not just an academic issue.

And just as the laws were intended in the Civil War era, the phenomenon of felon disenfranchisement hits African American communities especially hard. According to McAuliffe, the impact of decades of felon disenfranchisement in Virginia has resulted in one in five African Americans of voting age being excluded from voting. Thus, even if we pretend that the intent behind the law wasn’t to overtly attack the black vote, it’s impossible to dispute that the effect has been discriminatory. In both purpose and effect, disenfranchisement laws are instruments of white supremacy. Those jurisdictions wishing to move beyond a history of injustice would take immediate steps to get them off the books.

Anyone who actually works in the justice system knows that it is far from perfect, that innocent people are frequently convicted, and that the poor are particularly vulnerable. In the midst of such imperfection, there is no justification for the government to unnecessarily add the loss of voting rights to the mix, thus increasing the likelihood that the poorest among us will be excluded from the political process for life.

And even as a practical matter, it’s hard to imagine disenfranchisement laws having a deterrent effect on crime. Since when have voting rights been a high priority for criminals? As two conspirators plot a crime—burglary, robbery, or anything else—it’s doubtful that one has ever stopped the other and said, “Gee, maybe we shouldn’t do this. If we get caught, we lose our right to vote.”  The objective of such laws, of course, has never been deterrence, but the hostile disempowerment of a demographic

If the fundamental idea of democracy is citizen engagement and participation in government, nothing is gained by denying any capable adult—even those convicted of serious crimes—the right of participation. The alternative is to give government the power to deny certain individuals access to participatory democracy. As the Jim Crow era proved, and as we continue to see today, this is not just a theoretical concern.

For these reasons, there should be no means by which government can obstruct able, voting-age individuals entry to the polls. As McAuliffe said when interviewed on the subject, “It was the right thing to do legally. . . It was the right thing to do morally.”

Civic engagement would seem to be one aspect of post-prison life that might tend to keep individuals on a law-abiding path. Though I’m unaware of any studies on the subject, I would speculate that crime rates are somewhat lower for those who vote, attend city council meetings, and otherwise participate in civic life in their communities, than for those who are completely disengaged.

Why would be want to take affirmative steps to ensure that those leaving prison, having paid their dues to society, remain disengaged? The honest answer forces us to confront the unpleasant reality of institutionalized racism.


More: Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason

Garland’s Church-State Views Are a Mystery

Merrick Garland, the nominee of President Obama to fill the Supreme Court vacancy resulting from the death of Antonin Scalia, is widely viewed, at least by mainstream commentators, as a highly competent and intelligent jurist. He may never get to the high court due to GOP obstinance, but even those who refuse to give him a vote seem to speak highly of him. Despite Garland’s lengthy career on the federal bench, however, it seems that his views on church-state separation are largely a mystery.

Initial reviews of Garland’s jurisprudence have revealed no significant Establishment Clause rulings. This is partly because the court on which Garland sits–the DC Circuit Court of Appeals–doesn’t tend to attract many Establishment Clause cases. Even if we go beyond the Establishment Clause to look to cases involving other areas of religion in government–free exercise, for example, religious discrimination, or even the Religious Freedom Restoration Act–the Garland trail is scant.  Here’s a story from the Religion Clause Blog that discusses the few decisions that are out there.

New Event: Shirley, Mass., February 17

I rarely get invited to speak at a religious venue, and when I do it’s almost always a Unitarian-Universalist church. But on February 17 I’ll be expanding my horizons by visiting the Trinity Chapel, an Episcopal church in Shirley, Massachusetts, to give a talk entitled “Secularism Today.” The event starts at 7 p.m. with a reception and refreshments, and the talk starts at 7:30. Trinity Chapel is located at 188 Center Road in Shirley. Thanks very much to the folks from Trinity for extending this invitation — it’s nice to see a mainline Protestant church show interest in the subject of secularism and open its doors to a guest speaker from the secular movement.


Legal Victory: School Removes Teacher’s Prayer Request Board

Our latest legal victory at the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center comes from Mississippi, where a public school agreed to remove a teacher’s “prayer request” board in response to our complaint. Full story here.