2012 General Assembly news summary

Vigil outside 'Tent City' jail, June 23, 2012 (©Nancy Pierce)

The primary social witness event at the 2012 Justice General Assembly was a candlelight vigil with 2,400 people outside the ‘Tent City’ jail complex, June 23, 2012. (©Nancy Pierce)

Unitarian Universalists gathered in Phoenix, Ariz., for five days of worship, public witness, and education June 20–24, 2012, at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Justice General Assembly.”

The 1,723 delegates, representing 530 congregations, didn’t get much practice raising their voting cards this year, as there was limited denominational business. They chose to make reproductive rights the focus of four years of congregational study and action, voted to repudiate the 500-year-old “Doctrine of Discovery,” and gave final approval to three UUA bylaw amendments, including one that opens the door to new forms of congregational membership in the UUA that are not based on geography.

Focus on immigration

Unlike recent General Assemblies, the UUA’s annual convention and business meeting this year did not feature Actions of Immediate Witness, the social witness resolutions brought to GA by petition. Delegates also voted down the only responsive resolution introduced from the floor.

Instead, the Phoenix GA took shape around a 2010 business resolution that defined this year’s gathering as a “Justice General Assembly” dedicated to public witness about the plight of immigrants in the United States. That resolution expressly limited “business as usual” at the 2012 GA; a follow-up resolution in 2011 eliminated Actions of Immediate Witness from the GA agenda to cut down on the number of mini-assemblies and plenaries at this year’s GA.

Delegates to the 2010 General Assembly had voted to sharpen and limit the focus of the Phoenix GA only months after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law the state’s strict anti-illegal immigration bill SB 1070. UUs had debated boycotting the state and withdrawing the UUA from its contracts with convention hotels, which had been signed before SB 1070 was passed. But Arizona UU leaders and some of the state’s immigrant rights leaders asked the General Assembly to come in solidarity with immigrants and groups fighting on their behalf.

Working with immigrant rights groups and others in the Phoenix area, GA organizers welcomed the 3,714 people who registered this year to a series of evening public witness events and a variety of educational workshops, volunteer opportunities, and worship services.

For most General Assembly goers, the primary social witness event was a candlelight vigil the night of June 23 outside Maricopa County’s “Tent City” jail, where County Sheriff Joe Arpaio keeps prisoners outdoors in tents without air conditioning. On June 23, the high temperature in Phoenix was 109°F.

Busloads of Unitarian Universalists and interfaith partners traveled from the downtown convention center to the jail site at dusk, where organizers estimate approximately 2,400 people sang, chanted, and held up battery-powered candles for a two-hour vigil. Speakers at the vigil included several ministers who had just returned from an hour-long tour of the jail led by Sheriff Arpaio, including UUA President Peter Morales and the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ. The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, leader of the UU Arizona Immigration Ministry and one of the primary coordinators of the UU partnership with local immigrant rights groups, shared the stage with Puente Arizona organizer Carlos Garcia, who thanked UUs for bringing national attention to the conditions at the jail.

The Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, president of the UU Service Committee and former executive director of Amnesty International USA, also toured the jail; he led the vigil in remembering 122 people who had died in detention in the U.S. between 2003 and 2011* without having been convicted of a crime.

(Read UU World’s General Assembly blog for coverage of the vigil and a tour of “Tent City.” Watch videos of people describing their visits to the jail, including UCC President Black, Arizona UU minister Frederick-Gray, and the Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris. Another video shares a Minnesota youth group’s experiences at the vigil and at the Justice GA.)

Approximately 600 UUs volunteered at a “Naturalization/Citizenship Fair” at the ASU Preparatory Academy on Saturday, June 23, where they helped 320 people complete citizenship applications. The fair—a service project designed by Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit promoting citizenship and voter engagement, and UURISE (Unitarian Universalist Refugee and Immigrant Services and Education)—drew many more volunteers than organizers expected.

“We were bowled over,” said UURISE President Daniel Stracka, who expected closer to 200 volunteers. “It was a great affirmation that people wanted to do this kind of work.”

At the General Assembly convention center, meanwhile, other volunteers packed books, hats, water bottles, and other necessities in backpacks for children from low-income families served by the Dysart Community Center in Phoenix.

Justice GA unfolded as the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to release its decision about the legality of Arizona’s SB 1070. Several immigrant rights activists and scholars predicted throughout the week that the decision was likely to be bad news for immigrants and ethnic minorities in Arizona and throughout the country—no matter their legal status—but the court’s decision, released the morning after GA ended, was mostly a pleasant surprise: The court overturned most of the law’s provisions. President Morales applauded the decision, but added, “I am deeply disappointed that the Court has chosen to uphold the ‘check your papers’ portion of SB1070. This is not in keeping with our country’s long tradition of striving for justice for all, nor does it reflect our collective moral obligation to protect and support vulnerable populations among us, including migrants and people of color.”

UUA Moderator Gini Courter, who presided over the Justice GA, and several members of the UUA Board of Trustees joined a Phoenix rally condemning the court’s decision to affirm any part of SB 1070.

A new focus on reproductive justice

Delegates selected the new Congregational Study/Action Issue (CSAI), “Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling,” from among five proposals. The four-year study/action issue, which calls congregations to champion reproductive rights and reproductive justice as a religious issue, will culminate in a UUA Statement of Conscience in 2016. The UUA is halfway through another four-year CSAI, “Immigration as a Moral Issue.”

The Rev. Rob Keithan, a UU minister newly hired as the director of public policy of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice* and former director of the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy, had urged UUs to select the reproductive justice CSAI. “The war against women and birth control and abortion is implicitly and often explicitly driven by religious values that are in deep contradiction to our own,” Keithan said during a plenary presentation on the issue June 22. “While it’s been 20 years since our UU General Assembly took up this conversation, just yesterday the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops kicked off a two-week campaign aimed in part at limiting women’s access to no-cost birth control. . . . It’s time for the UU community to lift our voice and make a real difference.”

The UUA will publicize a study guide on reproductive justice issues for congregations this fall.

Repudiating the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’

Delegates debated only one issue at any length this year. They adopted an amended version of a responsive resolution the Board of Trustees had proposed earlier this year repudiating the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the centuries-old legal doctrine that declared indigenous peoples subject to the Christian explorers who “discovered” them. The resolution called the doctrine “a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and of religious, cultural, and racial biases having no place in the modern day treatment of indigenous peoples globally and indigenous nations of North American and the Hawaiian kingdom.” The resolution calls on the U.S. government to fully endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and calls on the UUA to eliminate any vestiges of the doctrine from its own policies and practices.

In the June 24 debate about the proposed resolution, critics focused largely on the timing of the resolution, arguing that congregations had not had time to study the issue. Supporters argued that one of the UUA’s Arizona partner organizations, Tonatierra, had specifically asked the UUA to take up the issue at the Justice GA. They also argued that the resolution invited congregations to engage the issue further. The resolution was adopted by a resounding majority.

Expanded definition of ‘congregation’

Delegates also adopted three bylaw amendments without debate and with nearly unanimous votes. One, supporters said, may open the door to major cultural changes in the UUA.

The first bylaw change eliminated references to “associate ministers,” an obsolete category of ministers following changes adopted by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee.

The second changed the process in Article XV for amending the UUA’s Principles and Purposes (Article II). The modified process will allow the General Assembly to amend proposed changes to Article II under particular conditions. The last time a General Assembly considered a proposal to revise Article II, in 2009, delegates had wanted to adopt part but not all of the proposal submitted by the Commission on Appraisal, but could not modify the commission’s text under guidelines in Article XV.

Finally, delegates approved a small wording change that the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, the UUA trustee who introduced the amendment, said could have major implications. The amendment changes references to “churches and fellowships” in the bylaws to the more general term “congregations,” and cuts “local” from references to “local congregations.” Removing “local,” Ritchie explained, would open the door to forms of religious affiliation not necessarily tied to physical meeting spaces.

“We can gather as intentional religious community with people we do not share a particular geography with,” Ritchie said. “The board believes it serves the cause of justice to expand the definition of congregations.”

This story was also published on uuworld.org on July 2, 2012. UU World will publish its full report on the 2012 General Assembly in the Fall issue. For extended coverage of GA, including photographs and video reports, see our General Assembly blog and guide to our online coverage. Sonja L. Cohen, Michelle Bates Deakin, and Donald E. Skinner contributed reporting to this story.

Correction 7.6.12: An earlier version of this story reported that the names of 122 detainees who had died in the past year were read during the June 23 vigil outside the “Tent City” jail, based on the way UUSC President William F. Schulz introduced the commemoration. The list of names, however, includes deaths across an eight-year period from October 2003 through July 2011. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

Correction 7.11.12: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Rev. Rob Keithan’s role at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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