FL faith leaders call on lawmakers to address racial disparities: ‘We are in the battle for the soul of this country’

Demonstrators gathered in Tallahassee near the Florida Capitol on May 31, 2020, to protest the police killing of George Floyd. Credit: Peter T. Reinwald

Faith leaders from across the state warned Wednesday that pending legislation in the Florida Legislature will threaten the lives of minorities and likely increase racial disparities.

Members of the Florida Council of Churches cited myriad concerns about curtailing voting rights and the freedom to protest, and curbing equal access to health care for low-income families, among other issues disproportionality impacting people of color.

“We are in the battle for the soul of this country,” said Rev. Bartholomew Banks, president Progressive Missionary & Educational Baptist State Convention of Florida, who participated with church leaders in a virtual news conference.

Following the Black Lives Matter movement, protests took place across the nation and in Florida over injustices against people of color, and Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed for the anti-protest bill, HB 1, that civil rights activists deemed as an attack on the right to peacefully protest.

Dr. James T. Morris, co-chair of Faith Leaders for the Florida People’s Campaign, said the anti-protest bill “tries to paint every attempt to address injustice as violent or threatening.” But “we reject this narrative,” he said.

“Instead of taking bold action to secure our rights as citizens of Florida, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, this Legislature has proposed HB1, which is an act that has been emboldened by the false moral narrative that attempts to blame those impacted by injustice for the problems in our society,” Morris said.

Morris also condemned state lawmakers pushing legislation that critics say would suppress voting rights. “This is wrong, this is immoral. So, we cannot stand for it,” Morris said.

Sponsored by Republican members of the Florida Senate and House, those voting measures would restrict mail-in balloting, curtail or remove use of ballot drop boxes, and outlaw use of out-of-state funding to promote voting, and more.

Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer, who is white, said the Florida Legislature is predominantly made up of white males but there are many voters of color in Florida.

“We recognize that the policy makers that have been elected in large part lack the direct personal experience to understand the suffering and the harm that a majority of Floridians are actually suffering,” said Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches.

Meyer added that lawmakers “should go the extra mile to learn about what life is like for those who are unlike them.”

Said Rev. James T. Golden of Manatee County. “Our work is liberation…we are all beset in a negative way with policies that impede equity, equality, and inclusion…Our weapon is not our intellect; our weapon is not finance. Our weapon is faith.”