Voting Rights Demonstration Leads to Faith Leaders' Arrests Outside White House

The Rev. Ferrell Malone speaks during a voting rights rally outside the White House on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, in Washington. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

WASHINGTON (RNS) — An interfaith assortment of faith leaders and actors were arrested outside the White House on Tuesday as they demanded in prayers and speeches that President Joe Biden and lawmakers in Congress do more to advocate for voting rights legislation.

The Rev. Jamal Bryant, a prominent Georgia pastor who had asked God in his opening prayer to "dispatch every available angel to be assigned to every representative who is the disrupter of democracy," was led away along with Rabbi David Saperstein, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and Alyssa Milano, the former "Who's the Boss?" and "Melrose Place" actress who has dedicated herself to activism in recent years.

Immediately prior to their arrest, demonstrators at the hourlong protest were warned three times by police they were in violation of D.C. law by "obstructing or incommoding."

Criticism for inaction on the legislation, particularly the John Lewis Act and the For the People Act, was aimed equally at the president and at the Republican lawmakers who have opposed the two bills.

The Rev. Ferrell Malone of Waycross, Georgia — one of the plaintiffs in a case challenging a state elections law that activists decry as restrictive — noted his state "delivered for the White House" in the 2020 election by electing Biden and helping Democrats secure a majority in the U.S. Senate.

"It's time for President Biden, and Vice President Kamala Harris, and the Senate and the House of Representatives to pay up," he said.

"I've known Joe Biden for 40 years," Saperstein told the crowd before his arrest. "All his life he has fought for voting rights. … Which is why we expect him, above all, to stand up and to make this a priority even among other enormously important priorities. This is the bedrock foundational right."

The Freedom to Vote Act, a compromise bill aimed at wooing those who disagree with key portions of the John Lewis Act, reportedly has support from all 50 Democratic U.S. senators but does not have enough Republican support to break the 60-vote supermajority required to override the Senate filibuster.

"In the face of injustice, we hear God's call to us," Saperstein said.

The 1 p.m. protest, organized by the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, was the second such protest outside the White House in recent weeks; the same groups convened a similar demonstration in early October.

Several speakers called on Biden to endorse ending the Senate filibuster, which has stymied many of his administration's more progressive legislative efforts despite a Democratic majority in Congress. Since March, the president and other White House have officials alternately dismissed the idea of eliminating the rule and voiced openness to reforming its use.

At one point, protesters chanted: "Hey! Joe! The filibuster must go!"

But Saperstein was among those at Tuesday's protest who did not support a complete elimination of the filibuster.

"The segment of the Jewish community that I represent — that is so committed to voting rights — we want to fix the filibuster here to prevent what we're seeing happening now without abandoning it," Saperstein told Religion News Service in an interview.

Multiple protesters also called for granting statehood to Washington, D.C., a deeply Democratic area that would shift Congress leftward if given voting representationin the Senate and the House. The cause has grown in popularity among religious voting rights activists this year.

"In my faith tradition there is a Scripture that says: 'Faith without works is dead,'" said the Rev. Delman Coates, pastor of Maryland's Mount Ennon Baptist Church. "We're here today because there's been too much silence as it relates to voting rights."

As the the final group departed with a police escort, protesters raised their fists as supporters on the sidewalk sang the civil rights hymn "We Shall Overcome."
 

#Interfaith is a self-paced, online learning opportunity designed to equip a new generation of leaders with the awareness and skills to promote interfaith cooperation online. The curriculum is free to Interfaith America readers; please use the scholarship code #Interfaith100. #Interfaith is presented by IFYC in collaboration with ReligionAndPublicLife.org.

 

more from IFYC

The Jan. 6 insurrection of the U.S. Capitol drew recent attention to the phenomenon of Christian nationalism, but religious and spiritual leaders acknowledge its existence long before that.
A new interfaith curriculum designed for Christian universities and seminaries recently got a test run. One professor who tried it says it's opened hearts and minds: "The desire is very much there."
"The only way we can move to a true Beloved Community is in telling the truth about what this country has done, including, notably, the intense racism that has driven voting rights," the Rev. Adam Russell Taylor writes.
The Rev. Karen Brau, pastor of Luther Place, told the small crowd gathered in the melting snow that despite the harassment they experienced a year prior, the faith leaders never stopped their prayerful witness.
These are some of those prayers said in and around the Capitol that day, collected by Religion News Service from videos, public documents, interviews and news reports.
The Pontifical Academy for Life has become the most attacked Vatican department online.
A national bridgebuilding field has flourished over the past decade to confront the profound dangers posed by American polarization. Can it hold truth and empathy side by side?
Though data is sparse, the church and Italian atheists agree that the 2-decade-old process is becoming more common.
The author began practicing Buddhism while in prison, meditating daily and keeping a gratitude journal. He now aims to help other convicts as a field minister through the North Carolina Field Minister Program.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.