Voting on Social Justice Requires Careful Process

There comes a time in the life of many congregations when they feel the need to take a public stand—as a congregation—on a compelling social issue, such as war with Iraq. The way in which a congregation takes such a stand is important. In most congregations there will be a group that may not be in favor of whatever stand is under consideration. Helping them feel heard and understood is a critical part of such votes and of avoiding divisions in the congregation.

In November the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica, CA (453 members), voted in favor of a statement of conscience condemning unilateral military action against Iraq and urging the involvement of the United Nations.

The vote was 118 to 6. But the congregational meeting itself was preceded by a series of events that were crucial to the ultimate vote. The process started last summer when Faith and Action, the congregation's social justice arm, called a congregational meeting to decide the congregation's social justice priorities. The congregation chose three, including peace. A peace subcommittee was formed, and when the Bush administration began focusing on Iraq, the subcommittee organized a number of forums and other events to educate the congregation.

The congregation's governing board, believing the vote would have more validity if it passed overwhelmingly, required that two-thirds of members at a congregation meeting must approve it. It passed by 95 percent.

The meeting lasted two hours. "Everyone who wished to speak got to do so," said S.J. Guidotti, chair of the Peace Sub-Committee. "This was the essence of our democratic process. The vote was taken only after both sides got what they felt was the best of all possible airing of their positions."

A year earlier another controversial issue was put to a vote. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some members wanted to fly the U.S. flag outside the church. They circulated petitions to bring it to a vote. Church bylaws require signatures of 10 percent of the congregation to bring such a question to a vote. Many people who were not necessarily in favor of the flag issue signed the petition so there could be a vote. It was ultimately voted down. "But in both cases we followed very democratic procedures," said Guidotti.

The Religious Society of Bell Street Chapel, Providence, RI (75), requires a supermajority of 85 percent on controversial issues. An antiwar resolution failed by one vote in December. "We moved too quickly," said Beth Jackson, congregation president. Brought back a month later, it passed by 97 percent. "By the time of the second vote people were much more comfortable with the issues," she said. "We had done more education, for one thing. And the discussion, by the minister, at the first meeting, about the tension between the right of individual conscience and the right of the group also helped."

Rev. Bill Gardiner, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association's Social Justice Empowerment Program, has written an article on planning for congregational meetings involving social justice issues. He recommends:

  • Plan for several months of discussion and debate before voting.
  • Make it clear that the integrity of all participants will be respected.
  • Use a voting method that affirms the spirit of an inclusive democratic process and maintains the dignity and, if necessary, the anonymity of voters.
  • Provide ample time for discussion before a vote is taken.

Gardiner adds, "I believe that it is important for our liberal faith that we be engaged in social issues as congregations. We need to remember that individuals live their religious lives most fully by acting upon the values of love and justice in the world."

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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