I recently read a newspaper headline that grabbed my attention as you might expect. The Dallas Morning News stated, “Greg Abbott pushes to block disabled Texans’ lawsuits against state.” For those of you not familiar with Texas politics I should probably offer a little background. Greg Abbot is the Texas Attorney General who is campaigning to replace Rick Perry as Governor. He is in a wheelchair so I have followed his career more closely than most, simply out of personal curiosity.
Abbott was injured when a tree limb fell on him 30 years ago and he has used a wheelchair since. That is why the newspaper headline caught my attention. It seems to me that someone in Abbott’s situation and with his experience would be a great friend of folks with a disability.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA) was passed into law by the federal government. Among other things, this law required access ramps and wider doors to allow disabled folks greater mobility and participation. As someone who has spent more than 60 years in a wheelchair I can attest that the ADA has made the world a much friendlier place for many of us – including Greg Abbott.
He first came into public prominence when appointed to the Texas Supreme Court in 1995. At that time, the state of Texas settled a lawsuit concerning the ADA and made the court building where he would work accessible to wheelchairs. Up until a very short time before being sworn in, the court building was not accessible to Abbott. Good luck being a judge when you can’t even get to the bench.
As Attorney General, Abbott has opposed numerous lawsuits brought against the state on behalf of the ADA. His reasoning is that Texas is a sovereign state and it is illegal to force the state to comply with a federal law.
I’m not a lawyer and he might be correct, although he has lost every time he has tried to make this case in the courts. Undaunted by repeatedly losing the argument, Abbott continues to take this position and stands in the way of disabled folks who want better access.
Abbott explains his actions by declaring appreciation for the ADA, but his true allegiance is to the principle that the state is sovereign and cannot be compelled by the federal government. In other words, he chooses to live according to his principles, not his convenience. Choosing principle over personal opinion is often a good thing. I have principles that guide my life and I try not to violate those principles even when it is inconvenient.
However, even though principles are a good thing, when we give priority to principles over people there is a problem. The problem with the principle that the federal government does not control the state is that each of the court cases that Abbott defended was more about a person than a principle.
For example, in one case a legally blind university professor needed the state university to do some rather inexpensive things to make her job possible. In another, a hearing impaired man asked the state for a voice amplification phone so he could visit a friend in prison, a cost of less than one hundred dollars.
In cases like these, the Attorney General’s office spends thousands of dollars to defend a principle rather than encouraging the state to spend a few dollars to help an individual. That is what I mean by placing principles over people. The irony is that the Attorney General has benefitted personally from the kinds of things he tries to withhold from others.
Last Sunday at church, the message was based on the story of Jesus and the woman “caught” in adultery. You remember the story of the Scribes and Pharisees dragging the woman to Jesus and demanding he uphold the principle that adultery is a sin that deserves the death penalty.
I am confident that Jesus is not a fan of adultery. In fact, He’s the one who elsewhere said that even if your eye wanders with lust toward a woman then you are already guilty of the sin. He could never be accused of turning a blind eye toward adultery. He had to choose between the principle that adultery is a sin and a woman who needed forgiveness. He chose forgiveness – what else would you expect from Jesus?
In a similar way, the Texas Attorney General stands (figuratively speaking, he is in a wheelchair after all) before a principle and a person – the principle of state sovereignty and a blind university professor, or a deaf man who wants to visit a friend in prison. So far, each time he has chosen the principle and we are all worse off because of his choice. Perhaps if he gets to spend another thirty plus years in a wheelchair he will have a little more compassion.