From the UUA President: Tennessee Teaches Us We Cannot Normalize Authoritarianism. We Must Protect Democracy.

By Susan Frederick-Gray

On Thursday, April 6th, the Republican-led Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel Democratic State Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson because of their actions on March 30th supporting protestors advocating for stronger gun safety legislation. The protests were in response to the mass shooting at Nashville’s The Covenant School, at which three children and three adults were killed. They failed to expel another State Representative, Gloria Johnson. Rep. Jones and Rep. Pearson are young Black men, while Rep. Johnson is a white woman, a fact that Johnson herself has noted as a contributing factor to the expulsion.

Below is a statement from Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), regarding this situation:

I am seething. This action by the Tennessee House of Representatives is rooted in anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and the emboldened anti-democratic movement within the far-right. This is how fascism becomes normalized in a democracy. And it is not something that we – as Unitarian Universalists and as Americans – can let happen.

I don’t use the term of fascism lightly but with deliberation. The far-right ideology committed to authoritarianism, which uses the scapegoating and dehumanization of marginalized groups – like religious minorities, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people and trans kids – to suppress opposition, undermine democracy, and consolidate power is exactly what we saw take place in Tennessee this week.

Democracy is never guaranteed. It is always something that must be engaged, defended, and demanded by the people, for the people.

The Tennessee House of Representatives claimed that their actions are justified because the “Tennessee Three” breached decorum. But as State Representative Justin Pearson asked in his speech before the expulsion vote [via YouTube], “is elevating our voices for justice or change a temper tantrum? But there is something in the decorum of this body that makes it okay to say that folks who are exercising their First Amendment rights, to speak up for the hundreds of thousands of people collectively that we represent, there’s something in the decorum of this body that says it is okay to call that a temper tantrum.”

Protesting is a First Amendment right in American society. The three State Representatives that the Tennessee House of Representatives sought to punish are not only exercising their own right to free speech, they are channeling their constituents’ anger, concern, and desire to act in favor of gun safety. They are representing the will of the people of their districts. In a very real sense, expelling them is not just meant to silence the individuals – it is also meant to punish and disenfranchise the people for which they speak. This is fundamentally and inexcusably a threat to our democracy, and the practices and norms upon which it functions.

As Unitarian Universalists, our religious tradition and our Principles affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in society at large. This means not only calling out acts of racism and authoritarianism, it means working to actively organize for justice and equity for all people, and mobilizing to protect and expand democracy. It means working in partnership across communities to nurture a Beloved Community that ends racial injustice. UUs have a long history doing this work, and we are committed to ending anti-Black racism in the United States.

We express our full solidarity with the constituents who may have lost their voice in the Tennessee House this week but are finding ways to express their need for justice and change. We offer our support to the civil rights leaders, the young people, the faith community, and all who are mobilizing against this injustice in Tennessee.

Democracy is never guaranteed. It is always something that must be engaged, defended, and demanded by the people, for the people. We, as Unitarian Universalists everywhere, are proud to be active in and in solidarity with the pro-democracy movement that is growing across this country. This is a movement that refuses to be intimidated by authoritarianism and continues to push for the multi-racial democracy that we all need. We have never left this work and pledge our continued commitment to it.

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