Last Monday, the new Mayor of Washington, D.C., Vincent Gray, was arrested for impeding traffic when he and others staged a protest by blocking Constitution Avenue near the Senate office buildings. They did their acts of civil disobedience to protest two provisions in the budget agreement reached by President Obama and the Republican leadership in Congress last weekend.
The first provision prohibits the District of Columbia from spending its own tax money to fund poor women’s abortions. The second provision requires the D.C. government to give vouchers to poor children so they can afford to attend private schools (Congress gave extra money to D.C. to pay for the vouchers, so D.C. would not have to spend its own tax money).
Mayor Gray called these two congressional mandates unjust impositions on the rights of D.C. residents to govern themselves. He opposes as morally wrong the constitutional provision that gives Congress ultimate control over the District of Columbia. Mayor Gray’s statements and actions show some major confusion about what is a genuine act of “civil disobedience,” and moral confusion concerning how the concept of justice applies to abortion and school choice for poor families.
1. There is a difference between civil disobedience and a publicity stunt.
True civil disobedience occurs when a person chooses to violate an unjust law because the person’s conscience compels him or her to obey a higher moral law. Examples include Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the Montgomery bus, in direct violation of the segregation laws. Daniel in the Old Testament prayed to God in violation of the law allowing prayer only to the emperor, and landed in the lions’ den as punishment. An American father and mother circa 1983 who believed God called them to home school their children risked arrest because they violated their state’s compulsory attendance laws which did not allow it. St. Valentine suffered death when he continued to conduct marriage ceremonies in violation of the Roman emperor’s prohibition on marriage, according to tradition. Those are genuine acts of civil disobedience by people deciding to obey God’s law rather than an unjust, man-made law.
What Mayor Gray did was of a different, and lesser category. He did not engage in true civil disobedience because he has no moral objection to D.C. traffic laws that prohibit people from blocking the streets. He and his supporters disrupted traffic to draw attention to what they objected to in the Obama/Congress budget deal, that imposes two requirements on D.C. without any input from the D.C. government. Stopping traffic has nothing to do with that. So this was more of a publicity stunt than a true act of civil disobedience.
I hope Mayor Gray and the other protestors do not view themselves as on the same high moral plane as Corrie ten Boom defying Nazi laws by hiding Jews to save them from the death camps, or abolitionists violating the federal Fugitive Slave Act by helping slaves flee to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Mayor Gray did get the headlines and presented good photo ops to the press. His objections to congressional control over the District are a legitimate issue for discussion and debate, but it is not “civil disobedience.” Let’s not water down the vitality of true civil disobedience in which people of conscience choose to disobey truly immoral laws, by drawing a false equivalency to what Mayor Gray did by blocking traffic.
2. A law prohibiting tax funded abortions is not an unjust law.
Mayor Gray, here is a piece of advice (and I am sure you regularly read this popular blog): You lose a lot of support when you tie a pro-abortion position with your advocacy for changing the Constitution to end Congressional control over the District of Columbia. You complicate the issue of D.C. governance by linking it to forcing unwilling taxpayers to fund the clear moral evil of abortion. Many who might be open to your ideas are turned off if the main result of agreeing with you would be more abortions in D.C. To tell poor women dealing with unwanted pregnancies that their problems will be solved with government-funded abortions is a tragic deception and morally wrong.
3. A law giving school vouchers to the children of poor families is not an unjust law.
Again, Mayor Gray, here’s some advice: If you want support for freeing the District of Columbia from Congressional control, don’t tie it to denying poor people the financial means to choose a private school as the best place to educate their children. The budget agreement from last weekend resurrects the very popular D.C. school voucher program. It empowers parents to direct the upbringing of their children. Tragically, the D.C. voucher program was one of the very few federal programs President Obama eliminated when he entered office in 2009. Mayor Gray, you hamper people’s ability to agree with your desire to end Congressional oversight of the District of Columbia when one of the first things you want to do is to deny poor families the financial ability to choose to attend private schools.
Self-rule for the District of Columbia is an important topic for consideration, but many will find it difficult to support if it means more abortions and fewer children able to attend private schools.