Policies on Public Witness, Actions and Statements

By William E Gardner

UUs holding Black Lives Matter banner witness for racial justice in Denver, CO, January 2015.

Some of the most volatile disagreements in the life of the congregations have to do with who speaks for the congregation on controversial issues. Any individual UU has the right to speak out personally on a controversial public issue.

But how does a congregation decide whether members of the congregation can participate in a demonstration as an identified group? When can members use the congregation’s name or carry their banner at public demonstrations?

When can a member, or group of members, or committee of the congregation can make a public statement on an issue or take out an ad in a newspaper using the name of the congregation in that statement?

It's helpful for the congregation's board to develop policies ahead of time to provide guidelines for who has the power to make what decisions and which groups are responsible for responding to certain situations.

Below is a grid that outlines some of these decisions.

Decision-Making Group►

Congregation Board Minister Social
Make a public statement          
Hold a press conference          
Buy an ad in local or social media          
Display a banner outside          
Participate in a public demonstration
as an identified group
Carry the congregation’s banner
or a sign identifying the congregation
at a political event 

Congregations use different policy guidelines for votes on controversial social justice issues:

  • Some congregations "pre-approve" issues that have been voted on at General Assembly.
  • Some congregations establish a higher quorum and percentage requirements for controversial issues.
  • Some congregations make use of a disclaimer. After the majority has voted they state: “This decision only reflects the votes of those who were present at the meeting and does not speak for the congregation as a whole.”
  • Some congregations allow the social justice committee or an action group to take a stand only for itself and not the whole congregation. In these situations the congregation has turned over its decision making power to a duly constituted group.