UPDATE: I have an exclusive interview with Sherre Toler; it follows her letter.
This thunderous letter of support for equality was sent to PHB and BlueNC by Sherre Toler, who, until last week was the director of elections for Harnett County in my state. Toler would rather leave her job than be a party to facilitating a ballot initiative this May that would allow discrimination under the North Carolina Constitution. Notably, she observes that “the Majority” would have voted to keep interracial marriage illegal. The cultural — and shifting — norm should not guide which human beings have civil rights and which should not. My emphasis below.
On January 3, 2012 I resigned my position as Director of Elections for Harnett County, NC. I am extremely proud of the progress and accomplishments made to the voting procedures and polling places in Harnett County over the last eleven and a half years. I am especially proud that the Board of Election’s Office has always been operated in a fair, efficient and non-partisan manner during my tenure.
Unfortunately, recent actions of the North Carolina General Assembly made it impossible for me to continue as Director of Elections as speaking publicly about candidates or issues appearing on the ballot is prohibited. In September, the legislature passed a bill requiring a referendum be placed on the May, 2012 primary ballot defining marriage as a “union between a man and a woman”. I cannot and will not be a party to such actions.
If “marriage” were simply a religious institution, this would not be an issue. Different faiths are free to impose whatever moral restrictions they choose on their congregations and they in turn are free to accept or reject those restrictions. From a psychological and emotional perspective, marriage provides the individuals an opportunity to demonstrate their love for each other by committing themselves to this “special” relationship. In addition, marriage provides the participants in the relationship with a myriad of legal rights and special status, including inheritance and property rights as well as insurance and tax benefits. Marriage provides over 1000 legal rights and protections. The so-called “Defense of Marriage” Act seeks to ensure that anyone wishing to marry their partner of the same gender will be DENIED those legal rights. The broad language of the referendum could also impact private contracts between individuals, powers of attorney, and domestic partnerships, including heterosexual ones.
Slavery, discrimination and segregation represent a tremendous blight upon the great history of this country. Not so long ago, “marriage” between those of different races, particularly black and white, was prohibited by law and this ban was supported by the “Majority”. In 2011, Public Policy Polling conducted a poll of Republican voters in Mississippi and a number of them (46%) believe that not only in their opinion is interracial marriage wrong but that it should be ILLEGAL.
Only 40% indicated they believe it should be legal. There can be little doubt that if interracial marriage were put to a majority vote, some jurisdictions would outlaw those marriages as well. It is important to a free society that civil rights not be subject to a popular vote!
As a result, I am opening Lighthouse Strategies and Consulting, LLC, a political consulting business. I plan to work tirelessly over the coming months to educate North Carolina citizens on the impact of this amendment and to defeat the effort to write discrimination into the North Carolina Constitution. I will also be working to help elect progressive candidates to local, county, state and federal offices so that these types of actions by legislatures around the country will not be repeated.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I simply could not continue in the position of Director of Elections and remain silent on this important issue.
UPDATE: I spoke with Sherre Toler about her decision to quit rather than foment bigotry as a public official, and her new goals with Lighthouse.
Pam Spaulding, PHB: You specifically referenced the public disdain for interracial marriage when Loving v. Virginia ruled that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional, and that even in 2011, nearly half of Mississippi Republicans thought it should be illegal. How do you respond to supporters of the NC amendment that this is not a valid comparison?
Sherre Toler: Discrimination is discrimination in whatever form it takes. The Supreme Court acknowledged in the Loving case that the “freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State” Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967). The same constitutional provisions that led the Court to that decision most certainly apply to the “freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of [the same gender] resides with the individual…” We cannot allow the civil rights of a minority group to be put to the vote of a majority.
Q: It has been quite clear that supporters of the amendment intend to continue conflating civil marriage with religious marriage. When considering your role as a public official, you recognized the distinctions between the two and how you could not be a party to this type of discrimination. What do you say to other public officials who cite their personal religious beliefs as a rational for discussing and implementing public policy?
A: There are several factors that public officials must examine when religious beliefs are being used to justify public policy. First and foremost is the United States Constitution which clearly requires a separation of church and state. As public officials they must ensure that any action taken does not violate the Constitution which they took an oath to uphold. Secondly, if a law violates one’s own principles of religion, spirituality or morals, each individual must examine his/her conscience and decide whether or not they can implement the law as written. If they can, they must do so. If they cannot, they must resign as I did. Lastly, public officials must work to change unjust laws. The Civil Rights Act and the actions of Dr. King and others, is an example of how change can be accomplished when people are willing to rise up and speak out against injustice.
Q: After resigning you have started up the political consultant firm Lighthouse Strategies, to help in this home stretch to defeat the amendment and to elect progressive candidates to office. What will be some of your initiatives to help energize pro-equality voters to get out and vote on May 8?
A: There is no question that the Tea Party, funded by the Koch Brothers and Art Pope, will pour millions of dollars into passing this amendment. But I firmly believe that grassroots activism can accomplish far greater results than even money can buy. But there is no question that money will be necessary to help with this effort and fundraising will be required. Secondly, education is vital. As citizens become aware about what this amendment actually does, I believe they will reject it! That is one of the reasons I made my resignation so public – to raise awareness of the importance of this issue! Next, getting voters registered and to the polls on May 8 will be crucial. Progressives cannot afford to sit on the sidelines as they did in 2010 because they are disillusioned or feel they have not gotten everything they expected to get following the 2008 elections. It is incumbent on leaders in the progressive movement to work tirelessly in this effort. Progressive talkers and bloggers like you can help enormously in this regard. Lastly, the work does not end with the outcome of this vote! As I said in my letter, we must elect progressive leaders who will not champion discrimination or advance the right-wing agenda but will stop it in its tracks!
Sherre Toler, JD
Lighthouse Strategies and Consulting
609A Piner Road, #179
Wilmington, NC 28409