ICYMI: Faith Communities and the ERA Town Hall

By Ava Lee-Green

The ERA Coalition held a town hall meeting on February 22, 2021, focusing on communities of faith and the ERA.

The event opened with a music video by Ani Zonneveld, a Malaysian-American singer and activist. 

Carol Jenkins, President and CEO of the ERA Coalition and Fund for Women’s Equality, welcomed panelists and attendees by saying, “We believe that the year 2021 is the year of the ERA.” 

Then, Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary and ERA Coalition/Fund for Women’s Equality Board member, opened the conversation and spoke about acknowledging that faith communities have not always been on the forefront of change for women, people of color, and those a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. She said, however, “…parts of our tradition have [changed], and those are [faith] communities that need to be mobilized.”  

She then went on to introduce Allyson McKinney Timm, founder and Executive Director of Justice Revival, who acted as the moderator for the town hall. Allyson emphasized the strength and wisdom of sacred traditions. The ideal of justice, as well as human rights, has long been supported by members of a diverse group of faiths. 

She kicked-off the event by introducing the panelists and giving their backgrounds.

What is the significance of justice within your different spiritual traditions?

Ani Zonneveld, founder and President of Muslims for Progressive Values, was the first person to speak on this topic. She talked about her experience with the Quran, and how upon rereading, she found justice and human rights as persistent themes. “You have to speak for human rights and for justice even if it is at the expense of your own self interest,” she said in reference to the passage 4:135 in the Quran. She also talked about how sacred texts are easy-to-reach tools that people use to boost the positions that they take on issues such as women’s rights. 

Ruby Sales, a human-rights activist and public theologian then spoke about using justice to allow people to express and connect the many facets of their identities. “When I think about justice, I think of it as an opportunity to become whole…to make a connection between our inner lives, and how we live in the world…” 

Religious communities are often the first place people go for help in a crisis. What problems of injustice, inequity, or inequality are most urgent in your community, or among those you serve, right now? 

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-founder of the Poor People’s Campaign, focused her answer on the economic impact that Covid-19 has had on women. While the Poor People’s Campaign had been focusing on helping people who were in dire economic situations before the pandemic, the organization has seen an increase of women and children in need of assistance. The majority of the population that has lost or has had to leave their job due to the pandemic are women. 

“When half of your nation…is experiencing injustice and inequality,” she said, “we have to raise a moral voice … that this isn’t how God intends, this is not how people of conscience intend, and we can do better.”

Ruby Sales then explored the need to examine how we perceive injustice, and who is most impacted. She highlighted how injustice is dehumanizing and can affect both white people and people of color. Ruby stressed the importance of recognizing the interrelated nature of human rights and the need to fight for equality on all fronts. 

During the pandemic, economic and social disparities between mothers of color and white mothers have become increasingly apparent. For example, these discrepancies contribute to food insecurity and demonstrate that these injustices are deeply rooted in societal systems. 

From a spiritual perspective, why is it important to support equal rights? 

Michelle Quist, attorney and columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune, was then brought into the conversation to voice her position. She often writes on her faith coming from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Quist said that unequal treatment by the government and society is inconsistent with God’s love for humans. She raised the importance of communicating to legislators that the progress towards equality is insufficient.

Rabbi Lynn Gottleib, one of the first female rabbis, began by holding up a candle to honor women who have lost their lives during the pandemic. “[Equal Rights] should not be an amendment; it should be at the core of how we conduct all of our relationships.” She added that her faith tradition is open to adapting to the ever-changing nature of society. Gottleib concludes by saying, “the ERA for me is an alignment with the biblical and rabbinic requirement to establish equity as a foundational principle of life.”

What lessons can we draw from faith-inspired ally groups and how can we use this knowledge in the fight for equal rights?

“I think Amendments are very important because that means the story is not closed,” Sales began. “It means that you have an opportunity to keep on making new history.” 

Both she and Theoharis spoke on looking at the values of people of faith as moral standards determining what is right and just. Strong leaders have come out during times of injustice. We need to understand what motivates them.

Sales emphasized we must first understand that we are trapped in a patriarchal society, and we have the chance to change it. Theoharis referenced Beulah Sanders’ belief that if marginalized communities fail because of injustice, then Christianity also will have failed. 

Our sacred texts are rich with stories that bring moral insight. Share a favorite story or passage that speaks to resisting oppression or advancing justice or equality.

Growing up, Quist said that she was taught to believe that she had a heavenly mother and father from whom she could learn. She alluded to the poem, “My Father in Heaven” by Elizabeth R. Snow, and explained that, “my tradition tells me that the discrimination that we face is man-made, and that my father in heaven and that my mother in heaven want me to speak out and try to make it better.”

A prominent biblical figure that stands out to Gottleib is Esther, who disliked being sexually objectified and so created a social movement in an attempt to stop the injustice. Gottleib then talked about Clara Lemlich, who in 1909, worked in a shirtwaist factory with miniscule wages and poor working conditions. She and some of her colleagues decided that they’d had enough, and picketed outside their factory. Those people, majority Jewish women, were beaten and arrested that day. In response, workers from all different factories poured into Union Square in New York to decide if they should collectively go on strike. A powerful speech by Lemlich resulted in 15,000 garment workers going on strike. 

Gottleib proclaimed, “I feel the ERA is carrying the story of those ancestors, women of color, my ancestors, Jewish women, who fought for things that we still do not enjoy….And so in honor of all of our ancestors…let us rise up to the words of Clara and pass the ERA.”

Many religious communities are deeply focused on global issues pertaining to gender injustices (for example sex trafficking, the denial of education for girls, etc.). What would you say to these communities about the importance of the ERA?

Ani Zonneveld began the discussion by talking about how the patriarchal systems of society have used religion as a way to justify oppression. As a person who leads men and women in prayer, she found that presence of women clergy in Islam challenges patriarchy, but much more work needs to be done.

People of her tradition say the phrase, “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful” (Arabic translation: بِسْمِ ٱللَّٰهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ), as a reminder to stay conscious of God. She explained that the root word “rahim” means womb, which is used to describe God as the most protective and nurturing environment. “And yet,” she said, “with a God that is so female in its character, it is us women that are being discriminated against.”

Quist joined in the conversation by addressing some of the arguments against the ERA. Among the points made by ERA opponents were that the Amendment would lead to marriage equality for same-sex partners. Quist pointed out that the ERA was not responsible for these cultural shifts. Although the ERA has not yet been codified, marriage equality was legalized in 2015, congress is already discussing the definition of sex, and custody battles are changing to be less biased against men. 

Quist directly addressed American communities of faith by saying, “The ERA is simply saying women are equal, full stop….The support of such a simple statement should be a non-issue. It’s the littlest thing you could do for the most amount of people.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote: “Ending sexism and including women fully in every aspect of society not only ends its own great evil—the oppression of women—but also is part of the solution to the rest of the world’s problems… Unleashing the power of women has the potential to transform our world in extraordinary and as yet unimagined ways.”

How will constitutional equality for women—and for people of all genders—transform America?

Both Gottleib and Sales suggested we ask ourselves what we want the world to look like. Oftentimes communities do not communicate with each other, which leads to lack of awareness about visionary women working hard for change. Gottleib restated the importance of the ERA by saying, “the ERA gives us a tool to bridge those visions, bring them together, and continue to build a culture of repair.”

Sales advised that we need to imagine what the world will look like in the future, and how the ERA can advance those goals. Is it to assume a position equal to that of white men? Or to create a new and better world? She suggests not getting drawn into a pre-existing mold of dominance relations. Instead she wants to see women working cooperatively to create new systems using what they have learned as a result of being excluded from the conversation for so many years. “The ERA gives us an opportunity to say to the world that this is a good life. A good life is when God’s children–black or white, male or female, transgender–all of God’s children have the right to participate in democracy by creating a banquet at which each of us has an opportunity to put our item on the menu.”

What is the biggest misunderstanding about the ERA among religious groups, and what insight can you give them to help clear the confusion?

For Theoharis, she would like to remind faith communities that humans are created equal in God’s image, and all are given the same inalienable rights. She brought up the gospel of Luke, which recounts the tale of a woman who was seeking justice and appealed to a judge who did not care about humans or God. Her persistence helped her receive justice finally.  

Theoharis articulated that religious communities must continue to assert that God believes in justice and equality. Traditions of faith are created from a place where life is sacred, and all people should be given equal protection under the law. 

Women are not equal citizens in the United States. What do you say to the woman or girl who’s grown up in a religious tradition that does not treat her as fully equal?

People know what is right and what is wrong, even at the young age of 12, when Zonneveld was scolded for doing the call to prayer because she was not a boy. Zonneveld knew even then that something about that rule was not right. She talked about trusting your intuition in order to reinterpret religion to fit the compassion and inclusivity that is needed in the 21st Century. She said, “If we allow the patriarchal interpretation of a religion to be the truth, then it is on us to actually debunk….”

Quist recognized that leaders of the church, both male and female, make mistakes. She also said, “You can know the gospel through prayer and love…I encourage everybody to come to their own truth and know that for themselves.”

The moderator, Allyson Mickinney Timm, wrapped up the conversation by spotlighting that the value of human life should not just be determined by political, justice, or social issues, but equality should also be recognized as a spiritual issue in how we treat one another.

The event concluded with Ani Zonneveld singing a song which was written by a female, Muslim saint 1400 years ago.

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