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GA backs removal of ‘punishment clause’ from U.S. Constitution

13th Amendment still allows slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for people who are incarcerated.

While outright slavery and involuntary servitude were banned following the Civil War by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a clause permits them “as a punishment for crime.”

For Robert Boneberg, a ruling elder at Wyoming Presbyterian Church in Milburn, N.J., that loophole needs to be closed, so he initiated the process of sending an overture to the 226th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) asking the denomination to support joint resolutions in Congress to eliminate even that permission.

His efforts resulted in an overture from the Presbytery of Northeast New Jersey to the GA to add the PC(USA)’s support to resolutions in the U.S. House and Senate that would send a proposed constitutional amendment to the states to ban the practices altogether. The Presbytery of the Highlands of New Jersey concurred.

During the denomination’s recent gathering in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Domestic Engagement Committee approved 42-3 an amended DOE-02, “On Supporting An Amendment to the United States Constitution to Abolish the Exception in the 13th Amendment That Permits Those Who Are Convicted of a Crime to be Enslaved,” and placed the overture on GA’s consent agenda. The assembly the measure.

“Whatever merit this may have had in 1865 has long since gotten to the point where it’s no longer viable,” Boneberg said. “You don’t need this exception.

“Whatever people were thinking, it no longer stands up in 2024,” he said. “You cannot have carve outs.”

The wording at issue – known as the “Punishment Clause” – is part of 13th Amendment, which was passed in 1865 and is the document that many consider the end of slavery. The amendment, however, only applied to “chattel” slavery, “in which an individual is considered the personal property of another,” according to the Legal Defense Fund. 

“Most people are not conversant with the text of the 13th Amendment,” he said. “They are often astonished” when they learn of the Punishment Clause.

“We felt that this was something, that if it were brought to the church’s attention, that it might well be supported,” Boneberg said, and indeed there has been no opposition as the overture has made its way through the process to be considered by the assembly.

The entire amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The rationale for asking the denomination, specifically its Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., to support the current efforts in Congress to delete the exception says, “The Punishment Clause, and the 18th century and 19th century philosophies that it embodies, are contrary to the teachings of Scripture and are contrary to the values and philosophies of liberty and human rights set forth in the tenets of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”