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Plenary IV Features Debate on Study Action Issues

General Assembly 2003 Event 3003

Moderator Diane Olson called the fourth Plenary of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assembly to order at 8:45 a.m. Plenaries are taking place at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston’s Back Bay, with well over 2,000 delegates from more than 775 congregations taking part in debate.

Following announcements by UUA Secretary Wayne Arnason, an introduction of members of the Commission on Social Witness followed: Chair Richard Nugent, and members Jan Carlsson Bull, Barbara Child, Robert Sarley, and Chris Trace, and Scott Keeler, staff assistant. Nugent explained the study action issue debate process, and Olson called on sponsors of proposed study/action issues to present their issues and make opening statements.

  1. Weapons of Mass Destruction.
    The sponsor statement was offered by Kathy Newharn, from the UU meeting of South Berkshire, Great Barrington, MA. She said in part, “It is crucial to abolish these weapons…they create dangerous situations for the world, shaping the way nations interact. They wreak havoc on the environment …our world and life itself is threatened. Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have worked hard to oppose nuclear weapons, issuing 15 statements since 1961. The U.S. has shifted from a policy of containment to one of dominance and proliferation, a frightening mix. Last year, I joined over 500 women in Geneva to support this resolution. UUs can once again help lead the way if you want justice work for peace.”
  2. Indigenous Peoples.
    The sponsor statement was offered by Nancy Mazarella of the Delaware UU Fellowship of Delaware, OH. She said, “Indigenous people were the original inhabitants of North and South America, but here, we are focusing on Native Americans in U.S. territories. Genocide was pushed on these people during the founding of our country. Today native people still suffer repression, bigotry and dominance against their normative ways. That should concern UUs as we are rooted in Emerson’s transcendental principals. In the US, more than 500 federally-recognized tribes exist. Most members live a tenuous identity. We should speak out as we did at GA 2001 against unwarranted merchandising of Native American symbols, names, and mascots. This is a study action issue which only moves us in a positive direction for our movement.”
  3. Human Rights and Peace.
    The sponsor statement was presented by James Hall, First Parish in Arlington, MA. He said, “There are three pre-eminent reasons for voting for the human rights and peace study action issue. There is no more important issue facing humanity in these frightening times than to attain peace in the world…we UUs are right in what we believe in, and we have an opportunity and obligation to bring peace to the world. Our UU covenant has long affirmed our belief in human rights, in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the right of conscience and use of the democratic process…thus we UUs have a positive message of hope and optimism. We are one people who have the same aspirations for ourselves and our children. We UUs can be instrumental in helping to bring about a world for peace and justice.”
  4. Criminal Justice and Prison Reform.
    Sharon Fisher from the UU Fellowship of Newark, DE presented the advocacy statement. She said, “UUs have been at the forefront of prison reform since the time of Dorothy Day in the 1900’s. In 1999, 1.5 million children had at least 1 parent in jail. Statistics in all states show that rates of the incarcerated are biased against poor women, African Americans, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and people of color. It is time we recognize that the revolving door of prisons is not reforming or helping anyone at all. We must not forget the millions of jobs that are investing in the criminal justice system in the US. The conditions for working prisoners are among the worst in the world: there are no health benefits, no safety standards, no unions, and no strikes allowed. We can change this.”
  5. Civil Unions and Same Sex Marriage.
    The Rev. Mark Belletini, Minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Columbus, OH, presented the advocacy statement. He said in part, “I have to admit that with the Canadian decision to allow same sex civil marriage and this week’s Supreme Court decision, there is fresh wind filling the sails of this study action issue. This is an issue of justice, equity and compassion which will help us grow spiritually in the process. This issue illustrates our principles. Whereas the 1990s told us ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ our ancestors have urged us, ‘do ask, do tell,’ about your life and your love. Unfortunately, history has distorted this issue…” Belletini cited examples of famous persons through history who had same sex partners, including Henry VIII and King John Sigismund. He said, “The wind is in the sails. The time to establish justice for millions of us in the country is upon us.”

Meg Riley, Director of the Advocacy and Witness staff group, was asked to speak to the delegate body about possible considerations in supporting a potential Action of Immediate Witness.

Riley said, “As you consider how you might want to cast your vote, I urge you to think strategically about your vote and how you want to use its power. This is not just about which issues you find compelling. You are not being asked, ‘which matters more to you, human rights, peace or same sex marriage, or criminal justice or indigenous peoples rights.’ What matters most is not always the most helpful question to ask when considering what is the best study action for our UU movement to choose in order to make a difference over the next two years. If you think strategically you might ask some other questions as we examine the issues where we might choose to focus our limited resources for assessing issues:

  1. Grounding: does this issue have authentic and deep UU roots?
  2. Fit: is there a match between our resources, aspirations and ability to make a difference?
  3. Opportunity—do we have an opportunity to be heard on this issue?

Riley reviewed the criteria for assessing the potential grounding, fit, and opportunity of each issue and concluded, “there is something to be said for doing something that is possible, and doing it well.”

Olson then invited advocacy statements to commence on each of the proposed study/action issues.

Karen Regal, lay minister from the UU Congregation of Atlanta, spoke in favor of the action supporting indigenous people. She said, “Native people do not have religious freedom yet. The use of peyote has to go through the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and the religious belief that Native Americans are savage people continues. The lifespan of the Native American male is 47 years compared to our life expectancy of 72. Supporting this action will help us to advance green sanctuary actions and social justice causes.”

Marilyn Jackson, member of First Parish in Arlington MA, spoke in favor of the world peace proposed action. She said, “Why does a world that embraces human rights also embrace peace? On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal declaration of human rights. It proclaims a world where people will enjoy freedom of speech as a highest aspiration of the people. Almost all of Latin America has adopted liberal forms of government…communism has been overthrown in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union….freedom and democracy is the demand throughout the world. Recognition of the inherent dignity of all people…is a sign of peace in the world.”

Steve Kelley from Orlando, FL, spoke in favor of criminal justice and prison reform. He said, “I have decided to support [this] item. We have a great deal of enthusiasm by youth for this. They have promoted this for four years. It is very pertinent to the statement of conscience passed last year on the war on drugs. Over forty percent of prisoners are in jail for drug-related crimes. In my home state, the tens of thousands of disenfranchised felons did not get to vote; we might have had a different president had this not happened.”

Steve Bells, from the Unitarian Church of All Souls, New York City, spoke in favor of the proposed action on same sex marriage. He said, “The Interweave Board has unanimously endorsed this issue. Thanks to our friends in Canada and Justice Anthony Kennedy, the world is focusing on same sex marriage. AOL’s (America OnLine) poll said 51 percent supported same sex marriage. Even people who don’t see themselves as gay can support this issue. As a religious institution we can play a role in educating the institution of religion in an understanding that marriage with all of the rights and protections of the constitution can include same sex people. Same sex marriage has become a hot button issue of our time. Adopting this issue can make a real difference in how society addresses this issue.”

Carolyn Stetston, First Unitarian Society of Albany, spoke in favor of the proposed action regarding weapons of mass destruction. She said, “I am a bio-terrorism response planner for a state agency. I can speak to the threat of weapons of mass destruction. It is that fact and the magnitude of resources our government is making to address that threat, that shapes our destiny. We do not understand [the impact of] our choices in making and creating this situation, which realizes our own worst fears. This is not about the presence of weapons in nation states, but the fact that the weapons could be available to people over whom we have no control…”

A vote was taken on the delegate body’s preferences, and while the votes were counted, Olson called for a reported from the Committee on Committees and Nominating Committee which was given by Calvin Dame and Young Kim, the chairs, respectively, of those bodies.

The Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committe report (PDF) was given by Chair James Hobart along with the other members of the committee: Sophia Bettancourt, Kurt Kuhwald, Linda Olson Peebles, Emily Ricketts, Leon Spencer, Susan Suchoki Brown, Kim Varney, and Simona Munson, staff and Taquiena Boston, President’s Representative.

The participants reviewed the history of the committee, formed at GA 1997. Sections of the report were presented as a responsive reading with the delegates and the committee participating equally.

Following the presentation, Diane Olson asked for the delegate body’s consideration of a donation to Friends of the UUA. She said, in asking their consideration, “I know you honor the Planning Committee’s request to not make unexpected requests for donations. And we are totally committed to that request. But there are occasions when issues related to the well being of the Association move us to ask you for help. This is the largest gathering of UUs we have ever experienced. We would like to request your help. We are short $100,000 in income from Friends of the UUA, income that we need. And in this difficult economy, we are struggling to reduce expenses without reducing our services. The board and I have already included $3,300 toward this request. You should not feel uncomfortable if your economic circumstances if you can’t make a gift, but look into the generosity of your heart, and help us if you can. Thank you so much.”

Meg Riley’s report followed, with her narrative highlighting the work of the Advocacy and Witness staff group.

Linda McCaffrey was recognized in Riley’s report as president of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation who has helped the UUWF to support women’s issues. Riley said, “The gift of the UUWF to provide matching funds to establish an internship in the UUA Washington Office to focus on women’s issues, establishes a permanent legacy to support the social justice work for which Clara Barton stood and for which the UUWF has been widely recognized.”

McAffrey then continued with a report on activities of the UU Women’s Federation, saying, “we created a restructuring TF to see how we could do business in a better way. It included members Patsy Madden, Phyllis Rickter, Denny Davidoff, Arlene Johnson, and Justice Waidner. McAffrey said, “The UUWF Board has been visionary in saying, ‘let’s do this and not put money back in our own pockets. And,” said McAffrey, “I want to thank Denny Davidoff. She continues to be a leader of an amazing kind, going all over the country to talk about this [internship program]. This is transforming work that we are engaged in…we thank you for your attention, and perhaps, and your donations to support this work.”

Olson, announcing the result of the votes for a new study/action issue, stated that a runoff vote between two of the proposed items was required. The total number of votes cast was 1,733, meaning that the number required for majority is 867. A runoff was called for between human rights and peace, (521 votes), and criminal justice and prison reform, (555 votes). A vote would be taken later in the plenary.

Olson called for a report on Socially Responsible Investing, and asked the Rev. Sidney Morris. Wearing a clerical robe, which she described as a “symbol of questing and reverence,” Morris said she used the robe to “symbolize that worship and learning are not separate from that most mundane of topics, money. ‘Money, which represents the pros of life and is hardly spoken of in parlors without apologies is in its effects and laws as beautiful as roses’ (Emerson).”

Morris explained that Socially Responsible Investing isn’t just about investing, it is about the way we are invested and embraced, enmeshed, in the great global financial system of which we are a part. “So far the system we have devised does not ennoble us…we must ennoble it. Being financially responsible means being present to every purchase we make in our own lives. We must be present to every investment we make. Do you know what you own, should you be lucky enough to have investments? Are you looking forward to retiring on money you made from diamonds or tobacco? We must show up and speak our values to companies,” she said.
She concluded, “Let’s lead the life of integrity we are called to by our faith.”

Olson called for debate on the second year Statement of Conscience—on Economic Globalization. Rev. Richard Nugent, chair of the Commission on Social Witness, reminded delegates that this issue first began when it was proposed by the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Portland Oregon in 2000. Two years of study, action and reflection have followed, as well as local advocacy activities, feedback to the Commission, and the language has been revised and refined by congregations after it was mailed last October. 120 attended a 3 hour mini-assembly to offer possible amendments.

Debate commenced on the proposed action, with Ward Morehouse of Frederick, MD, urging support and saying, “I salute the Commission on Social Witness, because this is an issue whose time has clearly come.” A speaker opposed to the action said, “this is a subject where individual understanding comes slowly and in pieces, so it is not surprising that there is a clash of those understandings; in the larger picture there is little disagreement …” Speaking in favor of the motion, another delegate said, “I went with a delegation of the UUs for Just Economic Community to Mexico to see the effects of 9 years of NAFTA—we met with various people and everywhere the message was, ‘NAFTA is a disaster for the people—dumping of products, etc., people displaced.”

Molly Goulet of Durham, NH: Made a motion to defer the statement for another year because it doesn’t address rights of indigenous people and issues of slave wages, simplicity and sustainability. (This motion is not debatable and a motion cannot be deferred for more than one year). The motion requires a 2/3vote. The motion failed. The main motion returned to the floor, and proposal of amendments commenced.

Olson then called for the runoff election on proposed first year study action issues, and tellers went off to count the votes while other business continued.

Amendments to the proposed statement of conscience on economic globalization:

Michael Scott, member of First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY, proposed deletion of a sentence which had been inserted by the CSW as lines 25-27 saying, “Studies show that rates of economic growth throughout the world have been lower from 1980-2000 than from 1960-1980, which suggests that globalization has contributed to increasing poverty and inequality.” This motion carried.

Another proposed amendment failed, and a delegate called the question, which the delegate body affirmed. The main motion was voted on, to approve the proposed Statement of Conscience as amended. The vote carried.

Finally, Olson announced the results of the runoff election on the proposed first year study action issue, stating that “Criminal Justice and Prison Reform” had won.

After Process Observations by Tamara Payne Alex and announcements by Secretary Wayne Arnason, the plenary stood in recess until Sunday afternoon following the Service of the Living Tradition.

Reported by Debbie Weiner.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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