By Michele Garnett McKenzie
I’m sitting in my office, catching up with a former client. A member of the political opposition who fled Cameroon and sought asylum nearly a decade ago, she had stopped by to show me her new U.S. passport. Our talk turned to the November elections—she was so proud to finally be an American citizen and to be voting for the first time in the United States.
But when I mentioned that Minnesotans will be deciding whether to amend the constitution to require government-issued photo identification to vote, she became angry. I didn’t have to frame the issue for her. I didn’t have to give her any background about the Voting Rights Act or explain that this is a voter restriction proposal that threatens to disenfranchise thousands of Minnesotans. Before I could even tell her that The Advocates opposes the measure her eyes flashed and her voice became stern.
“You have no idea how precious the right to vote is,” she told me. “I have a bullet in my foot from trying to vote!”
Our clients have a first-hand understanding of what freedom and oppression mean
Her reaction started me thinking about how the passage of the amendments could affect the many people we’ve helped to find asylum from persecution over the past thirty years. Every one of our clients has a unique story of their flight from their homelands where they feared persecution, torture, or death on account of their identities and beliefs. I thought of Joe, one of my first clients at The Advocates. Born in Zimbabwe, where President Mugabe had long proclaimed homosexuals to be “worse than dogs or pigs,” Joe struggled for years to hide his identity out of fear of arrest, torture, and execution at the hands of the government. Arriving in the United States, he sought asylum on the basis of his sexual orientation. What might passage of the marriage restriction amendment say to him?
Immigrants have helped shape Minnesota’s proud tradition of protecting religious freedom
Some proponents of the marriage amendment assert that their religious freedom is at stake, but they ignore Minnesota’s proud tradition of protecting religious freedom—a tradition rooted in the experiences of early settlers, but very much alive to this day.
In 1988, Eli Hershberger and 13 other members of an Amish religious community were ticketed for operating black, horse-drawn buggies on a public highway in Fillmore County, Minnesota, without displaying an orange-red reflective triangle, as Minnesota law requires for slow-moving vehicles. Hershberger and the others were unwilling to compromise their belief that displaying the bright sign on their buggies would mean placing their faith in worldly symbols rather than in God.
The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Hershberger’s challenge to the law, noting that “the early settlers of this region were of varied sects, may have endured religious intolerance in their native countries and were thus sensitive to religious differences among them.” Those experiences, the court observed, shaped the text of the liberty of conscience clause in the Minnesota Constitution:
The right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience shall never be infringed; nor shall any man be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any religious or ecclesiastical ministry, against his consent; nor shall any control of or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted, or any preference be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship . . . .
(Minnesota Constitution, Article I, § 16.) “This language is of a distinctively stronger character than the federal counterpart [in the First Amendment],” the court wrote, precluding “even an infringement on or an interferencewith religious freedom.” The court therefore allowed Hershberger and the others to use their proposed alternative: simple reflective tape and a lighted red lantern. The Kentucky Supreme Court, in contrast, just struck down a similar challenge brought by another group of Amish plaintiffs, ruling that the Kentucky Constitution’s protections for freedom of conscience go no further than the United States Constitution’s.
These rigorous protections should reassure people who object on religious grounds to same-sex marriage; no constitutional amendment is necessary to protect their religious freedom in Minnesota.
The proposed voter restriction amendment threatens religious freedom
Religious liberty might not be the first thing that comes to mind in discussions of voting procedures. But in the United States, the fundamental right to vote has been shaped by our respect for religious freedom. Most countries hold elections on weekends, while Election Day in the United States falls on a Tuesday, to accommodate Sabbath observances.
Religious freedom is at stake, because Minnesota’s proposed voting amendment would require all voters voting in person to present valid, government-issued photographic identification before receiving a ballot. The word “photographic” is key. According to a recent report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, some Christians believe photographs violate the Ten Commandments. “Identification laws that require individuals to be photographed … may infringe upon these individuals’ First Amendment right to exercise their religious beliefs freely.” Mississippi—the only state to place a voter ID requirement in its constitution—has an exemption for religious objectors, as do similar laws in Indiana and Pennsylvania. Minnesota’s amendment, however, has no such exception.
As further evidence of Minnesota’s long history of broadly accommodating the free exercise of religion, Minn. Stat. 171.071 allows a religious objector to obtain a non-photographic state-issued identification card. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, more than 100 people have these non-photographic Minnesota IDs.
But the proposed voting procedures amendment would erode Minnesota’s tradition of promoting religious freedom. The proposed amendment to the Minnesota Constitution would not allow any exemptions for religious objectors. It would require “[a]ll voters voting in person [to] present valid government-issued photographic identification before receiving a ballot.” “All voters” means no exceptions. So the more specific voting procedures amendment would trump the rigorous freedom of conscience clause in the Minnesota Constitution.
People who object on religious grounds to being photographed have a fundamental right to participate in our political process. The proposed amendment was poorly thought-out and fails to take into account our state’s long tradition of honoring freedom of conscience.
The Advocates for Human Rights opposes both amendments, and we are working hard to defeat them. My friend from Cameroon’s story inspires me as we work together to try and defeat the two Minnesota constitutional amendments that would restrict the right to vote and freedom to marry. Have you talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about how the proposed voter restriction amendment would affect voting rights, or how the proposed marriage restriction amendment would limit the freedom to marry? Could you make time this weekend to make calls or doorknock to help defeat the amendments? Visit Our Vote, Our Future and Minnesotans United for All Families for more information on how you can help.
Michele Garnett McKenzie is Advocacy Director at The Advocates for Human Rights. Thanks to staff attorney Amy Bergquist for the constitutional research.