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Congregations commit to civil liberties issues

Local churches and the UUA champion civil liberties as the U.S. responds to 9/11.
By Donald E. Skinner
November/December 2002 11.1.02

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A passion for civil liberties runs deep at First Unitarian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. It started before the Civil War when some members were instrumental in the Underground Railroad. In recent years it has included teach-ins on racial profiling by local police. The congregation has also actively opposed an antigay measure passed by the city council, completed the UUA’s Welcoming Congregation program, and offered support to Muslim communities after September 11, 2001.

It was only natural that First Unitarian leaders like President Lee Meyer would welcome the decision at the UUA’s 2002 General Assembly in Québec City in June to make civil liberties the association’s new Study/Action Issue. This bolsters the ongoing work of congregations like First Unitarian, says Meyer. “I found it very comforting that our denomination was speaking out on this issue. It lets us know we’re not out there alone.

“If we didn’t have civil liberties work, we’d lose significant membership,” says Meyer. “Social justice is a major part of who we are. It’s also a major part of how we’re regarded in the community.”

She says its partnership with a black Presbyterian church in a racial justice task force has helped enrich First Unitarian. “We’ve learned to work in community with our partner, not just supporting the cause of racial justice for them, but working with them. And while the cause is noble, probably the most importance that will come of these efforts will be the changes in ourselves.”

First Unitarian is working with its partner church to challenge City Hall on lead poisoning. “It may not sound like a civil liberties issue,” says Meyer, “but when the city refuses to test rental properties for lead at a time when juvenile behavior problems and diagnoses of attention deficit disorder are rising in low-income rental populations, it is a real civil liberties issue.”

She adds, “I know that the Study/Action Issue is primarily concerned with threats that relate to post–September 11, but it is very hard for us to separate them out. Others may be most concerned about intrusions by the federal government and its agencies, but we found that our concerns are with local law enforcement.”

Rob Cavenaugh, the legislative director in the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy, urges congregations to go first to the American Civil Liberties Union Web site to get up to date about civil liberties issues. He also recommends the curriculum Vision and Values in a Post–9/11 World.

“Educate yourself,” Cavanaugh says, “then introduce your congregation to the topic by inviting a speaker or showing a video—it’s important to introduce people to the topic without first requiring that they commit to a year-long process. Then a group can be formed to discuss specific issues. Do announce the formation of a group in the congregational newsletter, but also invite people personally to participate—it’s more effective. Consider partnering with local ACLU or NAACP groups that are already working on a problem. Don’t try to solve a problem while ignoring all the work that’s gone on in the community before.”

The UUA’s Washington office sent a Civil Liberties Study Guide to each congregation in October. The guide, including actions congregations might take and a list of books and helpful organizations, is also available through the Commission on Social Witness’s Web site, www.uua.org/csw. Cavenaugh’s suggestions include forming a study circle, developing a religious education curriculum about the civil liberties topic, and developing a Sunday service on the theme.

Mac Goekler, of the UU Church of Kent, Ohio, and cochair of the Ohio-Meadville District Social Justice Action Committee, urges congregations to try several approaches if necessary. “Don’t give up,” he says. “If one approach of engaging others fails, try something else.” His congregation has found success with an adult education series on Study/Action Issues.

As framed by delegates at General Assembly, the issue is: “What can Unitarian Universalists do to protect civil liberties, against governmental violation in the name of ‘homeland security,’ and in the wars against terrorism and drugs?” Possible study questions include: “Does the United States Patriot Act of 2001 properly balance the needs of ‘homeland security’ and civil liberties?” “Are there some civil liberties that people should be prepared to give up in times of war?”

The UU Society of Amherst, Massachusetts, began its post–September 11 civil liberties work with a public forum in April in conjunction with a local citizens group. A panel included a representative of the ACLU, an immigration lawyer, a civil rights activist, and a Muslim activist. About 100 attended. The Amherst congregation earlier passed a resolution expressing concern about erosion of civil liberties and urged Amherst city employees to stand up for the constitutional rights of all Amherst residents, says Erica Baron, a member of the congregation’s social justice committee. She adds, “These efforts certainly raised awareness of issues around civil liberties in the congregation and provided a great way for the social justice committee to connect with the larger community.”

Karolyn Schalk of St. John’s Unitarian Church, also in Cincinnati, came home from General Assembly excited about the possibilities presented by this year’s topic. “Sometimes we take an issue,” she says, “and it’s popular for a year and then it fades. The issue of civil liberties is interwoven with our faith tradition. It’s part of our principles. This is a fabulous opportunity. This is something that’s meaningful every day in all that we do.”

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