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Unitarian Universalists debate boycotting Arizona

Organizations and individuals take sides over boycotting the state, site of the 2012 General Assembly, over its new law targeting undocumented immigrants.
By Jane Greer
6.7.10

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UUA President Peter Morales and the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix, Ariz., march with hundreds of Unitarian Universalists to the Capitol in Phoenix on May 29 to protest the passage of SB 1070. (Terry Torrey)

Delegates to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2010 General Assembly will vote June 26 on whether to boycott Phoenix, Ariz., as the site of the 2012 General Assembly. The boycott has been proposed by the UUA Board of Trustees in response to the passage of a new Arizona state law, Senate Bill 1070, that would give local police expanded powers to prosecute undocumented workers and those employing, transporting, or “harboring” them. Many have expressed fear that the law would lead to expanded racial profiling and deportations that would tear families apart.

While the board voted* voted to present this resolution to the General Assembly, the Arizona and Las Vegas cluster of UU religious professionals issued a statement the next week opposing a GA boycott and asking that UUs come to Arizona as planned to stand in solidarity with Arizona UU congregations and other activists who support immigrant rights.

Since then, UU organizations and individuals have been vigorously debating the issue, with advocates on both sides expressing opinions through organizational statements and blog posts. While most UUs engaged in the debate have expressed opposition to the Arizona legislation, they do not agree on the best means of addressing it.

The UUA has supported immigrant justice since 1963, when it passed a resolution asking that the government remove “purely arbitrary barriers to immigration on the basis of race and national origin,” which Congress did in 1965. Since then, the General Assembly has passed eight resolutions in support of immigrant justice, the most recent in 2007.

According to the resolution passed by the UUA board in a special telephone conference on May 6, the board is asking the General Assembly to authorize the selection of another site for the 2012 General Assembly. The resolution is also directing congregations to raise the money the UUA would lose by canceling the meeting in Phoenix—more than $600,000—and to raise an equal sum or more to help the people of Arizona fight this law. The General Assembly will have to pass this resolution with a two-thirds vote to authorize the boycott.

The board, however, is authorized by the UUA bylaws to have the final say over where General Assembly is held. Even if the General Assembly voted against a boycott, the board could, in principle, override this vote.

If the General Assembly pulls out of Phoenix, the UUA would be joining a larger movement boycotting Arizona. The National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights group, has called for a boycott of the state. According to the Arizona Republic, 18 U.S. cities have approved boycotts of Arizona, 13 events have been cancelled, and 12 groups have announced travel boycotts.

One argument against a boycott is financial. According to UUA Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Tim Brennan, the UUA will lose $612,000, largely in hotel cancellation fees, if the General Assembly decides to select another site for the 2012 GA. The UUA has already been tightening its belt in response to the weakened economy, laying off 13 full- and part-time staff people this past spring and consolidating four departments into two. Fiscal Year 2011’s income is expected to be about $22.6 million, down from this year’s income of $23 million. Part of this decrease can be attributed to reduced income from congregations and donors.

To lessen some of the financial pain, the Rev. Roger Brewin, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Ind., and the Berrien Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in St. Joseph, Mich., has set up a website asking individuals to make voluntary contributions to offset the money that would be lost through the hotel cancellation fees. According to the website, “General Assembly: NO Phoenix 2012,” the money will provide an incentive to General Assembly delegates to go ahead with the boycott. To date, Brewin’s website has received more than $18,000 in pledges from 205 individuals.

Tom Loughrey, UUA secretary and trustee from the Pacific Southwest District, which includes Arizona, believes that the economic impact of a UUA boycott on the state of Arizona would be effective, even though General Assembly, with an average attendance of 4,000, is not a large convention. “We’re a tiny blip on the bigger economic radar screen,” he told UU World, “but it’s the cumulative effect of a number of organizations doing this that will have an impact.”

Loughrey also countered the idea that the Arizona economy wouldn’t be affected because the hotels would get to keep the $612,000 in penalty fees. The hotel revenues are only a part of the picture, he said. “There’s a whole ripple effect that’s created when an organization doesn’t meet in a city where they’ve planned to meet. There would be no food and beverage revenues. Local businesses, air carriers, and the Phoenix airport wouldn’t get revenues.”

The UUA boycotted Phoenix as the site of their General Assembly once before, in 1988, when the state refused to adopt Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday. Arizona began observing the holiday in 1990.

Not everyone agrees, however, about the economic effects of a boycott. Members of the Valley UU Church in Chandler, Ariz., released a statement, which was endorsed by the congregation’s board, arguing that boycotting Phoenix would only hurt those whom UUs are most seeking to help: the undocumented workers employed in the hotel and hospitality industries. “Additionally,” they wrote, “any falling state revenues will only give the current conservative state government more cause to exact revenge via budgets for education, health, and human services, and again hurt those very people the UUA is trying to support.”

Supporters of a boycott also point to the safety of GA delegates. “We’re cognizant of the fact that not everyone who comes [to GA] can produce the kind of identification that would be required by law in Arizona,” Loughrey said. “Even when people can produce the kind of ID that apparently would be acceptable to law enforcement, there are people who would not have that kind of documentation with them in protest.” Loughrey believes that these people could be subject to harassment through racial profiling. “As a board and an association, we have an obligation to make sure this is safe for everybody.”

Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), an organization of UU people of color, has also expressed its concern about safety. In a statement supporting a proposed boycott, the organization wrote, “Because some of our members have indicated their concern that they would not be safe travelling to and within Arizona as long as such racial profiling laws exist, we also support the proposed boycott of General Assembly. To hold a General Assembly without the total spectrum of our members is exclusionary.”

UU Allies for Racial Equity, a group of white antiracist allies that was formed to be accountable to communities of color, issued a statement supporting DRUUMM’s position.

The Chandler congregation dismissed concerns about safety, writing, “A driver’s license/passport is a sufficient form of ID. Numerous law enforcement agencies have already vowed not to enforce SB 1070. We expect that the experience of visiting Arizona will change little due to this law whether or not it ever takes effect.”

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has gone on record opposing the new law and has asked groups not to boycott Phoenix.

The Latina/o Unitarian Universalist Networking Association (LUUNA), an organization of Latina/o Unitarian Universalists that provides support to Latina/o Unitarian Universalists and promotes Latina/o culture, history, and diversity, has also come out in favor of a boycott. SB 1070, they wrote, is vague enough to allow “law enforcement agencies to harass individuals on the basis of appearance alone.” Legislation such as this, they caution, could “embolden other anti-Hispanic/racist actions all over the United States.”

The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Church of Phoenix, is one of the Arizona ministers asking that GA be held in Phoenix. Her church received the Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action in 2009 for its opposition to the practices of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has identified himself as “America’s toughest sheriff.” Frederick-Gray was responsible for issuing a call to Unitarian Universalists across the country to join in a march and rally protesting the passage of SB 1070 in Phoenix on May 29. Five hundred UUs showed up, she said, including UUA President Peter Morales, UUA Moderator Gini Courter, 50 UU clergy, and hundreds of lay people. The total crowd of protesters numbered 50,000.

Frederick-Gray said that it’s important for UUs to stand shoulder to shoulder with those affected by SB 1070. “We need to stand in solidarity with families that are being broken apart by this system and whose children are being traumatized.”

The Rev. Ian White Maher, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Queens in Flushing, N.Y., also advocated going to Phoenix in 2012 to join the people fighting SB 1070. “The decision to boycott will certainly provide us a brief moment of (perhaps justified) indignation,” he wrote on Facebook on June 1. “We will be able to say, as a denomination, we don’t like what is going on in Arizona. But likely, we will move on. And what does this say to our congregations who are fighting these issues day in and day out? What does it say to their members who are facing deportation themselves or have watched members of their families deported?” Maher urged that funds be raised for a full-time Phoenix-based organizer to help UUs maximize their witness at the Phoenix 2012 GA.

The Rev. Michael Tino, minister of the UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., presented an alternative proposal for the 2012 General Assembly on his blog June 2, suggesting that GA be held in August, instead of at the end of June, in a different location. “General Assembly,” he wrote, “is NOT a public witness event. It is the annual business meeting of our association.” Instead, he advocated for keeping the June 2012 hotel reservations in Phoenix for a “pure justice and witness event for that week. I am envisioning an interfaith conference on racial and economic justice, including justice for immigrants and their families.”

According to the UUA bylaws, the board has the ultimate authority for determining both the time and place for General Assembly.

Pacific Southwest District Executive Ken Brown urged UUs to look at the larger picture. “I would hope that people would take the time to discern how they can individually impact immigration nationally and in their own communities as well as with us in Arizona,” he said. “When you have whole towns of immigrants working in the slaughter plants in Iowa and Illinois, and the factories in Wisconsin, and in the chicken places in the South, this is not just an Arizona issue. It’s an issue we need to deal with and find an answer to nationally.”

Frederick-Gray sees the immigration debate as the civil rights movement of the 21st century. “We’re ground zero for the civil rights movement,” she said. “This is the moral issue of our day. Our country is changing demographically and culturally. The question is will we choose fear about these changes or will we choose to stand on the side of love?”


Correction 06.14.10: In an earlier version of this article, we mistakenly said that the board voted unanimously approved the resolution. One trustee voted against the resolution. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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