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General Assembly asserts UU moral values

In Portland, UUA's annual meeting recalls Pentagon Papers, urges opposition to torture and Iraq war, affirms transgender people.
By Christopher L. Walton And Tom Stites

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Daniel Ellsberg, Mike Gravel, Robert West

Daniel Ellsberg, former Sen. Mike Gravel, and former UUA President Robert N. West signed books at the UUA General Assembly June 23 after speaking about the UUA's role in publishing the Pentagon Papers. (©Christopher L. Walton/UU World)

The 46th annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in Portland, Ore., June 20–24, attracted the second largest GA crowd ever for five days of workshops, business meetings, lectures, and worship services.

The Portland General Assembly drew 5,697 people, including 2,428 delegates representing 643 member congregations. Several thousand people attended major presentations at GA, including a forum on the UUA’s role in the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, an address on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by Middle East scholar Rashid Khalidi, and Sunday afternoon’s closing worship service featuring the Rev. Josh Pawelek and singer Ysaye M. Barnwell, best known for her work with Sweet Honey in the Rock.

The unexpectedly large turnout filled many workshop rooms to overflowing. When more than 1,200 turned up for a lecture by popular author (and former UU minister) Robert Fulghum, many people were turned away. The General Assembly Planning Committee promised to make recordings available of overcrowded events.

The General Assembly commemorated Beacon Press’s publication of the Pentagon Papers with speeches by three of the men who brought the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War to the public. Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to Sen. Mike Gravel and the New York Times, joined Gravel and former UUA President Robert N. West to discuss the significance of their decision today.

“Thank God for a democracy that leaks like a sieve,” said Gravel, who is a Democratic candidate for U.S. President. “We need more leaks.” In 1971 Gravel read the documents he received from Ellsberg into the Congressional Record. The New York Times and other newspapers published selections until the Justice Department filed an injunction stopping them. Beacon Press was the only publisher who took the risk of publishing the entire collection.

West recalled the threats the UUA endured from the government, including a call from President Richard Nixon. “The Justice Department investigated our entire denomination’s financial affairs and threatened our Association staff members,” he said, “because one of our departments, Beacon Press, published one book that was controversial—a text that was already in the public domain.” He said he sees parallels in the government’s secrecy and the “misuse” of the power of the Justice Department today, and quoted from his report to the 1973 General Assembly: “We want to make known our determination to resist every government intrusion on our constitutional liberties and to encourage others also to resist.”

Ellsberg said that he hopes someone with access to documents about the U.S. government’s plans for war with Iran will come forward. “By taking that risk,” he said, “they’d have a high chance of averting a catastrophe that would lead to the deaths of tens, hundreds of thousands of people and disastrously reduce our security.”

As for the occupation of Iraq, Ellsberg drew sustained applause when he said, “The Congress has the power to stop the war. They’re not doing it.”

Video of major presentations and written reports about many GA workshops and events are available online at UUA.org. The fall issue of UU World will feature extended coverage of General Assembly. See sidebar for links to related resources.

The published General Assembly agenda included votes on a Statement of Conscience on “moral values in a pluralistic society,” two relatively minor bylaw amendments, and an uncontested slate of candidates for elected boards and committees. But delegates brought a dozen additional resolutions that livened up the plenary sessions on the final day of the Assembly.

The Statement of Conscience, which emerged from a two-year “study/action” process in congregations, called for Unitarian Universalists “to assert and defend two basic principles underlying the American Constitution”—“the right of all human beings to follow a life of their choosing, as long as others are not harmed,” and “the basic principle of inherent equal dignity of all human beings.” (The full text of all General Assembly resolutions will be available at UUA.org; see sidebar for links.)

Delegates approved six social justice resolutions or “Actions of Immediate Witness” on torture, immigration raids, international women’s rights, sexuality education, gay rights in the U.S. military, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The first four passed with little debate, but the last two inspired passionate exchanges.

An Action of Immediate Witness (AIW) entitled “Repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” which calls for an end to a policy that allows gay and lesbian people to serve in the military only if they are closeted, drew statements of opposition from delegates who raised class issues and criticized military violence. “This is yet another campaign being pushed forward by white, privileged queer people,” said Jason Lydon, a delegate from the Community Church of Boston, “without being in accountable relationships with queer people of color, or being aware of the impact the military itself has on all communities of color.” A handful of speakers expressed concerns that repeal could lead to an epidemic of hate crimes—“open season on gays in the military,” in one opponent’s phrase.

After the debate became emotional, a delegate, trustee-at-large Tamara Payne-Alex, came to the procedural microphone to ask if there was time for a prayer, and Moderator Gini Courter agreed. After a minute of silence, Courter offered a prayer that said, in part, “There is always enough love to go around if we create it. Let us be centered, forgiving, and caring.”

Courter then called for a vote and announced that the resolution had clearly carried. To make sure people had a chance to judge for themselves, she asked the video camera operators to pan the vast plenary hall so the evidence could be seen on the giant screens on either side of the plenary stage. As the cameras panned, she called again for yes and no votes and for a show of abstentions. There were clearly many fewer negative votes than affirmative.

The final Action of Immediate Witness, entitled “Pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act with Transgender Inclusion and Protection,” also attracted spirited opposition from delegates who said it did not go far enough and from others who said the resolution expressed commitments the UUA has already made. (Some of the opponents had sponsored a resolution specifically affirming transgender people that the Commission on Social Witness merged with a separate resolution on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.) This AIW also passed easily.

As the final plenary session was coming to a close, delegates came forward with six “responsive resolutions,” which were approved with little or no debate. The UUA bylaws permit delegate-initiated resolutions in response to reports by UUA officers and committees.

One responsive resolution reaffirmed the General Assembly’s opposition to the war in Iraq and urged delegates to take “all necessary action to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq.”

One asked congregations to report back to future General Assemblies about their historical “complicity with the genocide of native people, with slavery and the slave-based economy, and with all types of racial, ethnic, and cultural oppression past and present, toward the goal of accountability through acknowledgment, apology, repair, and reconciliation.” The resolution asked for updates at the next two Assemblies.

Other resolutions asked congregations to report next year about their engagement with people in communities of color regarding their voting experiences; encouraged congregations to raise funds to provide health insurance for approximately 200 uninsured church employees; and asked the General Assembly Planning Committee to discuss devoting at least 30 minutes of the opening of General Assembly 2008 to help attendees “engage in compassionate response and witness” when encountering new people.

One responsive resolution grew out of a proposed Action of Immediate Witness about transgender people. It affirmed “the commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, including transgender individuals” and urged that “this spiritual value” be expressed through “employment practices, educational efforts, congregational life, and public witness.” The resolution notes that no prior General Assembly statement specifically addresses the Association’s views on transgender identity and encourages congregations “to explore with their communities the important differences between sexual orientation and transgender identity.”

At last year’s GA there was one responsive resolution; this year the number equaled the number of Actions of Immediate Witness, which undergo a rigorous process of proposal, petition, amendment sessions, and floor debate. There is no such process for “responsive resolutions,” although approval requires a two-thirds vote. Moderator Courter said she would be discussing the responsive resolution process with the UUA’s parliamentarian and legal counsel before next year’s Assembly.

In other business, delegates elected a slate of candidates who ran unopposed for denominational boards and committees, approved two bylaw changes without debate, and voted on 30 mission-oriented statements that grew out of “Open Space” conversations about the mission of Unitarian Universalism. The Association welcomed two new member congregations: the Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship in Raleigh, N.C., and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hot Springs, Ark.

The bylaw amendments added “Chief Governance Officer” to the description of the moderator’s duties and refined language governing the Board of Review, an elected body that hears appeals of Ministerial Fellowship decisions.

Several hundred people took part in conversations about Unitarian Universalism’s mission in the world, using a decision-making process called Open Space Technology, and generated 30 statements for prioritization by delegates. Unfortunately, results of the vote on the Open Space statements won’t be available for several months due to technical difficulties. (See the Fall issue of UU World in late August for a complete report on the Open Space conversations and other General Assembly events.)

During his annual report, UUA President William G. Sinkford announced a comprehensive fundraising campaign called “Now is the Time.” The campaign’s goal is to raise $20 million in cash and $30 million in planned giving commitments. More than $14 million in cash and $19 million in legacy commitments has already been raised, Sinkford said. All Unitarian Universalists will be offered an opportunity to contribute through special Association Sunday collections in their congregations this fall.

Sinkford said the collection would fund a national advertising campaign and he introduced a clip from a short film the UUA has commissioned as part of the advertising campaign. Other Association Sunday funds will support the successful settlement of ministers of color and allow the Association to offer grants for promising new growth efforts.

See sidebar for links to related resources, including expanded coverage of General Assembly events, the full text of resolutions, and related articles.

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