Sanctuary, Abolitionism, and the Role of Local Governments in Resistance Movements

A few weeks ago Mason, Ohio voted to make itself a new kind of “sanctuary city” by banning abortions and threatening to punish anyone who aids or abets an abortion within the city limits. Mason is not alone—it is part of a growing movement of local governments passing ordinances declaring themselves “sanctuaries for the unborn.” On their face, these ordinances seem almost silly. Towns like Mason or Lubbock, Texas clearly don’t have the legal authority or capacity to countermand the Supreme Court. (The threat to a woman’s right to choose is exigent and immediate, but it’s coming from the Court itself, not small towns in Ohio).

But just because these sanctuary ordinances are performative expressions of small-town morality does not mean that we should dismiss them. The local governments that are adopting these ordinances are acting in a long tradition of local engagement with (and resistance to) national political disputes. Not only are these ordinances in the same family as other conservative forms of resistance ordinances (requiring townspeople to be armed, nullifying state vaccine mandates, and banning critical race theory), they are also in the same family as liberal resistance ordinances from the familiar (immigration sanctuary ordinances) to the less familiar (condemning the January 6 Insurrection or calling for an end to the embargo on Cuba).

As different as all of these ordinances are on the axes of politics and local power, they are unified by a central question: what the heck do these local governments think they are doing? To put it slightly more artfully: what meaningful role can or should local governments play in resistance movements and s