In the wake of the contentious 2020 election, hundreds of bills aimed at overhauling the voting process are making their way through state legislatures across the country.

Known as voter access laws, these bills cover a range of voting rules, from what IDs are required to when you’re allowed to vote. Depending on whom you ask, they amount to either thinly veiled “voter suppression” or a step forward for “election integrity.” On both sides of the aisle, faith leaders are part of the fight.

“We’re at a 1960s moment,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, who is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and involved in faith-based activism against the bills. “Democracy is in the balance.”

Other faith leaders support efforts to update voting rules, arguing that the bills won’t keep Americans from casting their ballots.

“We have to give everyone the right to vote, but we have to protect the integrity of the election,” said the Rev. Gary Hamrick, pastor of Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg, Virginia.

Regardless of their take on the legislation, most faith leaders agree the right to vote is a sacred cornerstone of democracy.

What are voter access laws?

Most voter access bills revolve around three issues, said Caleb Jackson of the Campaign Legal Center.

“Generally, I put the bills into three boxes,” he said. The first type involves changes to state laws on absentee voting; the second targets early voting; and the third is more administrative, covering issues like election certification, essentially changing who has control over elections.

Opponents of the proposed changes say this year’s bills, like others before them, will make it harder for many Americans to participate in elections.

“Over the last 20 years, states have put barriers in front of the ballot box — imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration and purging voter rolls. These efforts … have kept significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls, hitting all Americans, but placing special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters,” argues the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy organization.

Much of the current debate is focused on voter access bills’ potential impact on Black and brown voters. Some legal experts and faith leaders believe that, if passed, the measures would essentially roll back the legal and political gains made by minority groups since the civil rights era.

Julianne Bensen, left, prays during a service at Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg, Va., on Sunday, April 25, 2021.
Carol Guzy, for the Deseret News

But other community leaders, including pastors, say the demands placed on voters by the bills are reasonable and that suggesting otherwise is a form of “soft bigotry.”

“It’s racist … to assume that Black and brown people are the only ethnicities in the United States of America that don’t have the intellectual ability to vote with an ID,” said the Rev. Aubrey Shines, pastor of G2G Church in Tampa, Florida, and a founder of Conservative Clergy of Color.

The Rev. Shines’ organization recently ran a full-page ad in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution celebrating Georgia’s controversial new voting rights law. The pastor believes much of the criticism of that bill and others like it has been overblown.

“I don’t know of any employer that would say, ‘No, you can’t go vote (on Election Day).’ These people would be sued beyond imagination,” the Rev. Shines said of the potential impact of limiting early voting options.

Jackson was more critical of Georgia’s voter access law, which he described as a Republican-led effort to exclude certain groups from voting. Party leaders were likely reacting to Democratic success in the state’s Senate runoff elections, he said.

While the final legislation that passed in Georgia was softer than its predecessor, it includes provisions that will restrict early voting for runoffs. In January, the nation saw how critical Georgia’s runoffs were, Jackson adds.

“The version that passed doesn’t restrict early voting for general elections … but does for runoff voting,” he said.

What religious leaders say

At a recent press conference, a large group of Christian clergy from across the nation joined leaders from the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Campaign for Moral Revival in denouncing the legislation and in publishing a jointly signed “pastoral letter to the nation.” And, this week, Jewish groups launched a national racial justice campaign that will include lobbying, phone banking, texting and letter writing.

“We’ll make the case that the No. 1 way we can finally dismantle the systems of racist oppression in America is to make sure every vote is counted and every voice is heard,” Rabbi Pesner said.

This year’s efforts will build on a long history of joint Jewish and Black activism surrounding the ballot box and other civil rights issues, he added.

“As citizens, as Americans, as faith leaders we have to be on the same page and call this what it is — voter suppression,” Rabbi Pesner said.

The Rev. Cynthia Hale, senior pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia, said during the recent Poor People’s Campaign event that opposing voter suppression is one way that churches can build the kingdom of God here on earth.

“In the kingdom of God, there is no suppression of voting rights or any other rights,” she said.

At the same press conference, the Rev. Frederick Douglass Haynes III, senior pastor of Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas, likened voting access laws to legislated racism.

“The filibuster and voter suppression bills across the country have been united in unholy wedlock and yet have the nerve to be dressed up in a tuxedo of political respectability,” he said. “This is Jim and Jane Crow apartheid.”

Other pastors, however, disagree.

For example, the Rev. Hamrick believes updates to voting rules ensure Americans have faith in election results.

“It’s critical for us as Americans to keep (our) freedom intact and secure,” he said.

However, while some conservatives would like to see weekend voting eliminated, the Rev. Hamrick said that isn’t something he, personally, wants to see scrapped — a reminder that not only are there differences between the two camps of faith leaders, there’s disagreement inside of them, as well.

Religious leaders on both the right and left do agree on one thing: Voting is a foundation of our democracy and shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Most also say that the goal of their activism is uniting the country, not dividing it.

The Rev. William Barber, co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, remarked during the recent event that these issues transcend the labels of “right” and “left.”

The clergy who joined him, he explained, represented the multitudes “who have decided that we must speak out in this moment in the public square — liberating some of the issues that are being debated from the puny echoes of left versus right, Republican versus Democrat, conservative versus liberal, to the area of … our deepest moral values.”