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Liberty is at the core of our Unitarian Universalist faith. Civil liberties are at the heart of our American experiment in democracy. Those civil liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, Amendments I through X to the Constitution of the United States of America, are as fundamental to our practice of democracy as freedom of conscience is to our actions of faith.
Civil liberties carry a history of conflict and struggle between rights for all and privilege for some, between individual liberty and general security, between personal need and the common good, between the aspiration to reason and tolerance and the inclination to scapegoat and punish. Our democracy has the ability to balance these competing claims. Democratic process is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. Our Unitarian Universalist Principles are grounded in freedom, reason, and tolerance. Ours is a tradition that has sought to uphold the sanctity of the individual voice. We have affirmed that human beings need not adhere to the same beliefs or draw upon the same sources of meaning to discern the common good.
As Unitarian Universalists, we look to American history, the history of our faith movement, and our shared Principles and Purposes to help us determine the appropriate balance between freedom and security. Prophetic people of all faiths have been instrumental in defending liberty throughout history. We stand on the shoulders of those who have fought to uphold civil liberties. Civil liberties are also essential to the free expression and practice of our faith tradition and to the diversity of faith traditions in America. They are further essential to our ability as citizens to fully engage the political process and hold our leaders accountable.
Unitarian Universalists are gravely concerned with the current erosion of American civil liberties. Our criminal justice system has seen increases in police brutality, harsher sentencing, racial profiling, and a call by our leaders for quicker resort to the death penalty. The “War on Drugs” has given the United States the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate among economically advanced nations. Federal funding for faith-based initiatives has threatened religious liberty by compromising the independence and equality of different religious groups.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, created a climate of fear that has escalated these threats to our liberties and made possible an ill-defined “War on Terrorism.” The message from our government is that the United States cannot be both safe and free. Building on a pre-September 11 current of diminished civil liberties, the USA PATRIOT Act was signed into law on October 26, 2001. This Act permits the unlimited detention and deportation of foreign nationals on the basis of suspicion and without due process of law. It redefines the scope of terrorism law to include domestic associations, rendering citizen organizations, including communities of faith, subject to secret surveillance and investigation. It allows the FBI to investigate American citizens without probable cause if the agents consider it for “intelligence purposes.” It permits law enforcement agencies to conduct secret searches, including phone and Internet surveillance, and grants access to medical, banking, employment, library, and other personal records with fewer considerations of due process.
Dissent has been branded as unpatriotic and tantamount to aiding and abetting terrorism. Emboldened by the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, the administration of President George W. Bush has interrogated thousands of Arab and South Asian immigrants, incarcerated hundreds in the United States on minor immigration charges or material witness claims, and detained over 1,200 foreign nationals in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without due process or compliance with the Geneva Convention. Military tribunals have been empowered to convict suspected terrorists on the basis of hearsay and secret evidence and without independent judicial review. Individuals have been denied the ability to travel by airplane because they are on a government no-fly list. All this has happened in an oppressive political climate in which Unitarian Universalists and others have too frequently failed to raise voices of reason and forbearance. This failure is evidenced by the hundreds of people who have been arrested and subjected to excessive force and the denial of due process for exercising their constitutionally protected freedoms through lawful protests, rallies, vigils, and signage. Because so many of our global neighbors look to the United States as a model of democracy, the erosion of American civil liberties gives permission to governments elsewhere to similarly erode civil liberties.
Freedom sacrificed for safety is no longer freedom. Americans discovered this in the aftermath of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the infamous Palmer raids of 1920, the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. We are discovering it today.
As people of faith, and as Americans, we are called to action. We are called to reclaim our heritage as Unitarian Universalists and become vigilant stewards of our democracy. We are called as individuals, as congregations, and as an association of congregations to let our leaders know that some current policies are unacceptable. Therefore:
Nearly every generation faces grave challenges to the liberties for which so many men and women have fought—the liberties for which many of our ancestors placed themselves in peril so that future generations could live in freedom. Balancing freedom and security is our challenge. Let us heed the words of Benjamin Franklin engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, “They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
The ultimate test of democracy is the will to protect the rights of whomever we deem “the other.” It is what matters most in a nation struggling to realize the promise of liberty and justice for all. It is a matter of conscience and faith.
Background: This Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Statement of Conscience (SOC) builds upon previous social witness statements on civil liberties adopted in 1963 (Support for the Bill of Rights) and in 2002 (Support for the International Criminal Court). In June 2002, the General Assembly of the UUA selected “Civil Liberties” as the issue suggested to congregations for two years of study, action, and reflection. The Commission on Social Witness (CSW) received initial reports from congregations and districts in March 2003. In June 2003, the CSW held a workshop on this issue at General Assembly. A draft Statement of Conscience was distributed to all congregations and districts for comment in the fall of 2003. Comments were reviewed by the CSW at its March 2004 meeting. A mini-assembly was held on Friday, June 25, 2004, for amendments—many of which were incorporated into the final version. Delegates of the 2004 General Assembly voted, by overwhelming majority, to adopt this SOC. The text of other UUA Statements of Conscience can be found at the UUA website and the CSW website.
For more information contact socialwitness @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Monday, July 30, 2012.
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