Anatomy Of A Pro-Life Campaign In Mississippi: How, By God’s Grace, We Got The “Personhood Amendment” On The Ballot — Round One
“Some [trust] in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.” — Psalm 20:1.
By Les Riley
Sponsor, Mississippi Personhood Amendment
A few weeks ago it became “official”. The Mississippi Personhood Amendment will be on the ballot in 2011. The brief meeting with the Secretary of State and small, sometimes contentious/ sometimes humorous press conference that followed was the culmination of a year of signature collection and many years of planning and preparation.
After the frantic last few weeks of signature gathering and an exciting rally (video here) the day we turned in over 130,000 signatures, this event was almost anti-climactic. This is especially true in light of the fact that the real battle has just begun. The hard work of gathering signatures and getting on the ballot with little money and a purely grass roots, bottom up organization in the hardest state in the country to get an initiative on the ballot, is actually only the “play in round”. To say this, of course, is in no way to downplay the tremendous victory and working of God that got us through Round One. But, we are in only Round One. We now have a right to be in the fight. And what a fight it should be.
Mississippi’s N.O.W. spokesman has already announced that she was “gathering opposition” and similar pronouncements have come from the ACLU and the other usual suspects. Last December, NARAL said they consider state level Personhood efforts the major threat to “legal” abortion in America, but we fully expect the defenders of death to spend tens of millions to try and defeat this measure. Our response is: “If the LORD [be] God, follow him: but if Baal, [then] follow him” - I Kings 18:21
So, how did we get to this point? How did God take a tractor salesman with 10 kids and no money along with three other families and grow a statewide grassroots organization of over 2000 volunteers and 1000 churches in less than a year? How did we spend $11,000 and have an all volunteer organization and do what had only been done three other times in Mississippi history — gather enough signatures to get a Constitutional Amendment put on the ballot? And, the other three times the effort was led by a large, well funded political party or organization with paid staff? How was such a massive hill climbed?
“Asa cried unto the LORD his God, and said, LORD, [it is] nothing with thee to help, whether with many, or with them that have no power: help us, O LORD our God; for we rest on thee, and in thy name we go against this multitude. O LORD, thou [art] our God; let not man prevail against thee.” - II Chron 14:11
Equally important, how will this effort be used — in the past and now — to change Mississippi culture and the lives of many Christians and non christians by re-framing the debate over abortion and by talking to hundreds of thousands in Mississippi about the humanity of their unborn neighbors and the Gospel and Law of King Jesus? Hopefully this incomplete story of how the victory was achieved in the petition drive phase of the Mississippi Personhood effort will encourage & challenge pro-life Christians around our state and the country
First and foremost victory in Round One of the Mississippi Personhood campaign was built not on trusting political wisdom, but on the faithfulness of God. Only by God’s Grace could we get in excess of 130,000 signatures (of which over 106,000 were certified) when many thought we would never make the minimum threshold of 89,285 signatures. As late as two weeks before the deadline the “smart money” politically was on us not making it.
Early on we sought to make this about more than merely a petition drive because abortion is a terrible crime against an innocent, defenseless human being and our society. Child murder on a mass scale under the color of law is an affront to the Constitution and the very foundations of a free and just society.
Both of those things, however, pale by comparison to the fact that “legal” child murder is a assault upon the very character and goodness of Christ. He is sovereign. He gives life. He alone opens and closes the womb. He hates hands that shed innocent blood. And He gives us the duty and privilege of defending the fatherless & speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. Ultimately, the foundational motivation for the Christian in prolife activism (including Personhood petition drives) or anything else must be love for Christ. His glory and reputation must be our chief concern. So, we prayed when we started and throughout the petition drive that God would glorify Himself by aiding us in making the glory of Christ our starting point and chief goal in all that we did. And that, through this, He would act in mighty ways that we could not even imagine - opening doors that seemed closed, prospering our efforts, forgiving our errors, giving us favor with potential allies, confounding our enemies. And we found Him to be faithful in this even when we were faithless and fickle. God literally made the impossible possible and real on multiple occasions, particularly in the last weeks.
To Whom Much Is Given - Doing Not Just Knowing
OK, but what about the practical realities of how we got the signatures ? I’ll get to that, but one more foundational thing must be understood about our successful Mississippi Personhood petition drive:
Knowing the right things does not change things. Knowing what everyone else is doing wrong and being able to pick it apart doesn’t change things. Acting on what you know to be true - even if everyone else thinks you’re crazy and it seems like no one is coming along to help - is how things happen. It’s called faith. And not some modernistic, esoteric concept of “faith” but a real, Biblical faith - knowing the Truth and then acting on what you know.
Put another way, it is hard to get people to follow your ideas (no matter how sound they are) if you aren’t going anywhere with them.
Genesis, Planning, Preparation And False starts
Now, the actual story of the petition drive. My family and I have been involved in prolife activism/ ministry for almost 20 years. In 1991 we started doing sidewalk counseling, rescues, and helped start a Crisis Pregnancy Center in Southaven, Miss. Back then, there were seven abortion mills in Mississippi. Now there is only one. The story of how our state has seen the closure of those other six killing centers is similar to the way we got the signatures on the Personhood Amendment, as you shall see as the story unfolds.
Not long after we got involved in pro-life work, we were introduced to the Taxpayers (now Constitution) Party and Howard Phillips. Howard used to say that the way to end “legal” abortion in America was for a lower magistrate (governor, legislative body) to publicly declare the “legal Personhood” of the unborn child. He said this because of a statement in Harry Blackmun’s majority opinion in the infamous, illegal, and unconstitutional court decision “Roe v Wade” which allegedly “legalized” abortion. I say alleged, because courts do not make laws. In Roe, Blackmun, says that they were not going to answer the question as to whether or not the “fetus” was a legal person, because “if this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment” (emphasis mine.)
From that point on I began to study how the 10th Amendment & State Sovereignty might be used to simply ignore the Roe decision because it is not law; courts do not make law. I wrote articles, hosted a conference on “States Rights and Abortion” and began seeking elected officials and candidates who would publicly declare the legal personhood of the unborn. I hoped we could find some pro-life statesman to protect the helpless and challenge the Federal Judicial Usurpation known as Roe v Wade.
After several years of trying this approach, we began to look at the “Initiative and Referendum Clause” in our state Constitution as a possible means to define person in our state law.
In 2003 I wrote a very short suggested Personhood Amendment, and later showed it to Steve Crampton - a Constitutional Attorney with Liberty Counsel (then with American Family Association) and one of my close friends from church. We “tweaked” it a little and filed with the Sec of State. When we got there, however, we were told that there was already someone working on something similar. So, we decided to just help them. Unfortunately, after a couple of tries, this other Personhood effort never got off the ground.
So, we rewrote it and submitted in late 2008. This is the final language:
Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Mississippi: SECTION 1. Article III of the constitution of the state of Mississippi is hearby amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION TO READ: Section 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” This initiative shall not require any additional revenue for implementation.
The placement of the Amendment was immediately at the end of the Bill of Rights - “Article III” which is referenced in the Amendment. This was crucial because in recent history anytime there is a court case or law passed acknowledging that unborn children are human beings, the parties (or some ACLU lawyer) is quick to step in and say that the fetus has rights under these circumstances (mother in car wreck) but not in others. By placing it at the end of the Bill of Rights as a definition then all the legal protections any human beings have belong to all human beings.
Encouraged And Preparing
By now, Colorado had been working on a similar measure in which they gathered enough signatures, but fell short at the ballot box. We were encouraged to know, though, that there were other people, who had similar ideas, independent of us, in other parts of the country. We took it as a sign that this was a move of God. Once submitted there is about a 60 to 90 day process a citizen’s initiative must go through before signatures can be gathered. So, we began having prayer meetings and contacting pro-life activists and personal friends. We knew this was going to be a major undertaking. We just didn’t know how big.
We had a meeting in my living room with three families from our church and a couple other interested parties. At this meeting the twin themes of the work were laid :
— Psalm 20 - we will trust in the Lord, through Christ, to accomplish the work.
The Nehemiah Principle
— Nehemiah heard of the state of the country and saw that the people of God were a reproach and therefore the Name of God was being reproached.
— Nehemiah was broken hearted over this.
— Nehemiah cried out to God in repentance (even for sins that he had not been involved in).
— Nehemiah cried out for God to deliver them.
— And Nehemiah asked God to use him (Nehemiah) because he was “the king’s cupbearer.”
God answered Nehemiah’s prayer, and they were given the city. Then there are several chapters of detailed descriptions of all the people who rebuilt the wall - one section at a time. God’s work of deliverance & restoration was accomplished through His people doing the little task that was in front of them. Like this, the closure of Mississippi’s other six abortion mills has been accomplished not through some top down plan, but rather by concerned Christians across the state doing the little thing that was in front of them. And that was our prayer/ hope for how the Personhood work would be accomplished.
Spiritual, Cultural And Political- Legal
As an aside: Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the petition drive we completed is the secondary spiritual and cultural impact it has had and will have for years to come. Abortion, as I said, is ultimately a spiritual issue. But it plays itself out and must be fought on two fronts : cultural and legal/ political.
One obvious effort of the Personhood Amendment is to protect the unborn by making people aware that since the unborn are actually innocent human persons, abortion is already illegal since it is murder. In the process of collecting 130,000 signatures, petitioning in 1000 churches, and gaining 2000 volunteers from across the state, we pro-lifers have literally had the opportunity to talk one on one about the humanity of the unborn with well over 200,000 people. We have by God’s Grace been able to interrupt and confront with God’s Law those who favor child killing in the name of choice; to help desperate mothers; to point post abortive parents to the Cross; and to share the Gospel on many occasions.
Likewise, there are dozens of young and old Christians across our state who had always wanted to (or never considered) sharing their faith and getting involved to help stop abortion and otherwise get outside of their churches to fight evil and help the hurting, but who had never had an opportunity. Now that they have had a taste, and God has blessed them, they want more. They have been and will continue to impact Mississippi and Mississippians for the cause of life and the Cause of Christ.
Keith Mason of “Personhood USA” calls Personhood petitioning “the gateway drug into pro life ministry”.This sounds trite, but we have found it to be the case. There are people who had never been involved who helped with signature collection or calling on churches or clerical work that are now are doing sidewalk counseling at abortion clinics or volunteering at CPC’s or involved in Christian adoption.
There’s a family in North Mississippi that heard about what we are doing and wanted to help. They have three grown kids who were among the most shy and reserved people I’ve ever met. They said they didn’t know if they could petition and the middle son said adamantly “we won’t protest”. But, they sincerely loved the Lord and wanted to help somehow (clerical work, writing, etc)
As it turns out, this family - and the two oldest kids in particular - were among our most active petitioners - conservatively, they were responsible for 5000 to 7000 signatures; the young man spoke in several churches and to youth groups about Personhood. His quiet older sister petitioned across the state. The two of them have gone to abortion mills in Memphis and Jackson to do sidewalk counseling & street evangelism.
Another family in the Delta had a son who had graduated from homeschool and not started college or work yet. He decided that he could work on petitioning full time for the next year. He and his sisters and their friends ended up collecting over 8000 signatures.
A 90 year old widow in South Mississippi called & said she was a shut in - but she had gotten 13 signatures & was praying for us.
A reserved “country boy” working in timber country who had been praying about abortion heard of what we were doing and ended up calling on 300 churches personally to ask them to get involved. He got thousands of signatures and did lots of leg work including walking into a Planned Parenthood office (not an abortion mill) to witness to them. He is now helping with ministry at the abortion clinic in Jackson in an inner city neighbor hood.
There are literally hundreds of stories of lives changed during our petition drive: new volunteers at CPC’s; people who decided to run for office; people who got to share the Gospel with someone they never would have met; people that decided to adopt. One of my favorite stories is here.
But what about the particulars of how we got 130,000 signatures? Our original strategy was built on the hope that churches and pro lifers from all over Mississippi would catch fire once they heard of what we were doing. We expected pro-life organizations to immediately “jump on board”. Neither of these proved to be true in the early going. I think this was largely because the cynicism and skepticism that has developed over 40 years (and 50 million dead children) of watching “new” pro-life organizations with big hoopla come along who talk boldly, and never quite deliver. They have learned to trust people who demonstrate that they act & have staying power. This is just an assumption, though.
Whatever the reason, in the early months it seemed that we spent countless hours calling, emailing, mailing packets, going to see people at hundreds of churches and pro-life leaders across Mississippi and maybe one out of 50 would get excited, take ownership and want to help us. But, then in the last six months, they began to flock to our cause. The wildfire spread after months of trying to light it, but the “trying to light” part was like banging your head against the wall.
The most frustrating day was a trip to Jackson in which we had meetings with some political leaders in the morning and some state leaders of a large religious denomination. We found the religious leaders to be much more “political” than the politicians. They didn’t ask anything about our principles or ideas or why we were taking the Personhood approach. They didn’t even pray or bring up any Scripture. They asked things like “how much money have you raised?”.
Finally, in frustration I reminded them of the uproar and vote over Mississippi’s state flag in 2001. There was an effort to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from Mississippi’s state flag. A group of concerned citizens with no money and no organization - most of whom had never been involved in politics - armed with nothing but passion, started a completely grass roots petition drive to protect our historic state flag. Even though the entire political establishment was against them and they were outspent 10 to 1 they prevailed in a statewide referendum. I pointed out to these religious leaders that it would be shameful if Bubbas in bass boats could do this to protect our state flag and Christians could not, would not do it to protect unborn children. One man very calmly said : “Yeah, but that’s (the flag) something people care about”
I wept on the way home. Later, I wrote, that if God’s hand of final judgment falls on our state, we should have a big sign above the abortion clinic(s) with a picture of the state flag and an unborn baby with the statement “Yeah, but that’s (the flag) something people care about” across the bottom. So, in short, it was very slow & frustrating going in the petition drive at the beginning.
The Petition Drive
The way we gathered the 100,000 plus signatures is quite simple - one at a time. But the process was very hard. First because of difficulties that are common to all petition drives. More specifically, Keith Mason of “Personhood USA” told us that Mississippi is the most difficult state in the country to get an amendment placed on the ballot to amend the constitution via the initiative process.
This is because:
the high percentage of voters that needed (12% of the total number of voters in the previous gubernatorial election) the fact that they have to be equally distributed between the five old congressional districts. Mississippi now has only four congressional districts, but when the law was written we had five, so signatures have to be collected based on pre-2000 census districts - making it very difficult on not only the people collecting the signatures, but those having to certify an count them. the signatures have to be certified by county circuit clerks in each of Mississippi’s 82 counties before being submitted to the Sec of State. (this proved to be the most difficult of the obstacles in two ways) And the petition form is legal sized, front & back which created some logistical problems.
But, the bottom line is that the signatures have to be collected. So, we took a little core group - my wife, our 10 kids & I; some young people & families from our church; one family in the Delta; and a group of folks in the Jackson area. We visited every county fair, gun show, flea market & grocery store in the state — at times standing out in the heat, the rain. Sometimes we’d have a booth at a fair and get 800 or 900 signatures in a weekend. At other times, we might drive three hours and get 15 signatures - or be asked to leave without getting any. At other times, we might drive around and visit churches. Our successes increased. Then, we had a breakthrough when AFA (the American Family Association) met with us and wanted to get behind the petition drive. And several pastors of large, influential churches began doing petition drives in their churches and encouraging others to do the same. The AFA did radio interviews, a couple of e mail blasts, put Personhood on the front page of their web site, and started doing PSA’s on their stations once an hour. Other local and regional Christian radio stations began covering/ promoting our efforts as well. Momentum (and opposition) was increasing.
In the fall and winter we continued going to community events - football games, parades, rodeos, shopping centers - with larger numbers and now better trained volunteers. And, more people started going to the abortion clinics in Jackson and Memphis - more “turn aways” resulted. Finally, in December and January our Lt. Governor, Phil Bryant, sent a series of recorded phone messages to 100,000 of his supporters encouraging them to sign our petition. And, he started pressing other pro-life leaders to get behind our efforts. This brought much media attention - and more requests for interviews - along with hundreds more volunteers & thousands of signatures. In the end, we petitioned to the very last minute and exceeded the number of total signatures by over 40,000 and certified signatures by nearly 20,000. But the difficulties mentioned here with the certification process and some inane legal opinions offered by the Attorney General’s office meant that we had to sue and put public pressure on the AG and Sec of State at the last hour. We had hundreds of people petitioning in areas where we needed last minute signatures. We were running all over the state picking up completed petitions, delivering them to 82 county courthouses, picking them up and driving them to a central location to be copied, sorted and counted before turning in. The last weekend we had a huge, unexpected snow and unusually cold weather for Mississippi - yet our volunteers worked all the way until the last minute.
Victory In Round One
Praise God, the final result was that we had a big victory rally (video here) and turned in 130,000 signatures. The certified totals we had were 105,167 - and the Sec of State actually came up with a number 1500 higher than that! The Personhood Amendment will be on the ballot in Mississippi in 2011. We look forward to amending our constitution, restoring equal rights, and making people aware that the unborn must have legal protection because they are innocent persons. Thus, abortion is already illegal because, again, it is murder. May God alone receive the glory!
Coming up in Part II: Challenges Of The Coming Campaign.
Asked for a brief biography, Les Riley says of himself: Sinner Saved by Grace; Married 24 years; father of 11 children - 10 living; Part time Farmer & Tractor Salesman; Founder Personhood Mississippi/ Sponsor Mississippi Personhood Amendment; Chairman Miss Constitution Party since 1998;Candidate for Miss Commissioner of Agriculture 2007;19 Years involvement in Pro-life Ministry & Activism including: Rescues, Sidewalk Counseling, CPC’s, Educational & Political Involvement; Advocate of Christian Adoption & Orphan Care; Adoptive Father; Sons have been to orphanages in Africa.