Board calls for General Assembly boycott of Arizona

Board calls for General Assembly boycott of Arizona

Will ask delegates to approve withdrawing from contracts for 2012 GA in Phoenix; change could cost the UUA $615,000.
Jane Greer


The Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees voted May 6 to ask the General Assembly to approve pulling the 2012 General Assembly out of Phoenix, Ariz. The measure comes in response to the passage of a new state law cracking down on illegal immigration in Arizona, which many fear will lead to increased racial profiling and civil liberties violations.

Delegates to the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis, Minn., June 23–27, would have to approve the measure with a two-thirds majority to initiate the boycott.

In a second measure, the board pledged to hold its January 2011 meeting in Phoenix.

The board meeting, which took place by teleconference, was scheduled at short notice to draft a resolution for next month’s General Assembly agenda.

According to Arizona law SB1070, which is scheduled to go into effect in August, police would be required to ask any person already detained for another reason for proof of legal residence if police had a “reasonable suspicion” that the detained person could be in the country illegally. Law officers could also arrest anyone “if the officer has probable cause to believe that the person has committed any public offense that makes the person removable from the United States.” In addition, the law allows citizens to bring lawsuits against officials or agencies that they believe are not enforcing the law to its fullest extent and implicates legal residents who transport or “harbor” undocumented friends or relatives.

Reaction to the law has been swift and strong. U.S. President Barack Obama criticized the law on April 23, describing it as “misguided.” In an interview published in the Los Angeles Times on April 28, Obama said, “What I think is a mistake is when we start having local law enforcement officials empowered to stop people on the suspicion that they may be undocumented workers, because that carries a great amount of risk that core values that we all care about are breached.” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also condemned the law, as did Homeland Security Secretary—and former Arizona governor—Janet Napolitano.

In a statement released April 23, UUA President Peter Morales said, “Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 undermines everything our nation stands for. Under the provisions of this law, members of my own extended family could be targeted and detained, even though we have been American citizens for generations.”

During its two-and-a half-hour phone meeting, the UUA board considered the pros and cons of boycotting Phoenix as the site of the 2012 General Assembly. Pulling out of Arizona will be expensive for the UUA. According to Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Tim Brennan, the UUA would be subject to penalties of up to $615,000 if it cancelled its contracts with Phoenix hotels after June 15.

According to the resolution delegates will consider in June, this money would be offset by funds raised by UU congregations, although it is unclear how the resolution would raise this money—or the “equal or greater amount” it also pledges to raise to support public witness efforts in Arizona—without cutting funding for other UUA programs and services.

Jan Sneegas, director of the UUA’s General Assembly and Conference Services office, reported that convention space is currently available in Portland, Ore., and Providence, R.I., if an alternative site is needed.

Other reasons cited against a boycott included the need to stand in solidarity with the people of Arizona; the importance of honoring commitments; and the likelihood of harming the hospitality industry, which employs many of the people potentially affected by SB1070.

Trustees favoring a boycott said that the UUA would be standing with other groups that are boycotting the state. (Just before the meeting, the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the country, called for a boycott of Arizona. They were joined by the Asian American Justice Center, the Center for Community Change, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Service Employees International Union, among others.) A boycott would also be a way of asserting UU values in the world, and would avert the possibility that UUs coming to the conference might be targeted.

Trustees also acknowledged that UUs might choose not to attend the 2012 GA even if it did go on in Phoenix. Attendance was down at the 2008 General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale in part because of boycotts of the security restrictions imposed on the convention center by the Department of Homeland Security.

The Rev. Jeanne Pupke, trustee at large, said that a boycott of Phoenix was not enough in itself. It needed to be accompanied by additional action on the subject of immigration. “I think we should boycott and we should use GA as a place to discern what other actions we can take,” she said.

Reaction to the possibility of a UUA boycott among Arizona UUs has been mixed, according to the Rev. Diane Dowgiert, minister of the UU Church of Tucson. The Tucson congregation will receive the UUA’s Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action at the 2010 General Assembly for its No More Deaths program, which provides immigration advocacy and humanitarian aid to people crossing the desert from Mexico into the United States.

“There are people who are pretty adamant that boycotting is the way to go, and that we should apply whatever pressure we can to get the law overturned,” Dowgiert said. “On the other hand, people are genuinely concerned about UUs traveling to Arizona who might become targets or victims because of their skin color or their surname.”

“Other people are saying that it’s too soon [to plan a boycott],” Dowgiert added. “The Tucson City Council voted just this past week to sue the state, and the Pima County sheriff has said that he would not enforce the law or ask his officers to enforce the law. So there’s a good possibility that this will be overturned well before 2012. It would be a shame to miss the opportunity to have GA here and be a strong witness with our presence.”

Dowgiert added that there was also fear that a boycott would affect the hospitality industry, which employs many people who could be affected by the law.

The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Church of Phoenix, who was on the board’s call, expressed disappointment the next day about the board’s decision.

“I understand the reasons to support the boycott and even support some of those reasons myself,” she said. “However, it’s disheartening to have UUs choose not to come here because of something our legislature has done. The groups calling for boycotts want to create an immediate financial impact and pressure on the state of Arizona, yet it is unclear if canceling GA in two years brings that kind of immediate financial impact.”

“One of the things that religious groups bring and UUs would bring is a moral voice, an ability to engage around social justice advocacy,” Frederick-Gray said. “There is value that UUs bring that’s beyond financial, that’s something other groups don’t bring in terms of morally and politically engaging with what’s going on in Arizona.”

Frederick-Gray is excited, however, about the broad-based coalition that’s being formed to stop SB1070, which includes national, local, and state Latino groups, labor unions, African American organizations, and Catholic, Jewish, Evangelical, and progressive religious groups. “My hope is that the struggle here on the ground to stop this will also pressure Washington to act on comprehensive immigration reform,” she said.

The UUA has once before pulled a General Assembly out of Phoenix, in 1988, when the state refused to adopt Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. (Arizona began observing the holiday in 1990.) The UUA last held a GA in Phoenix in 1997.

At the end of its May 6 teleconference, the board voted to hold its January 2011 meeting in Phoenix. It held its January 2010 meeting in San Antonio, Tex., and has pledged to hold meetings at least once a year outside of the UUA headquarters in Boston.

Tom Loughrey, trustee from the Pacific Southwest District, which includes Arizona, said it was important for the board to show solidarity with the people of Arizona. “Irrespective of what we put on the GA agenda, we need to be with ministers, leaders, congregations and those most affected by this law,” he said. “The impact we can have when we’re in a community is significant. There’s much we can do to live out our Principles in Arizona.”

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