After impassioned debate on the future of Actions of Immediate Witness at Unitarian Universalist Association General Assemblies, delegates overwhelmingly voted in favor of a bylaw amendment that would eliminate AIWs at the 2012 Justice GA in Phoenix. The amendment also reconstitutes AIWs with the 2013 GA, reducing the allowable number of AIWs to three from six.
An amendment that would have eliminated AIWs from the GA agenda with no provision to restore them failed. It was the first of the two AIW amendments under consideration by the delegates. It needed a two-thirds majority of delegates to pass. However, 508 voted in favor and 406 delegates voted against, short of the two-thirds needed.
The fate of AIWs has been under discussion for more than a year, with concerns that the social witness resolutions brought to the General Assembly by petition were not appropriate for the 2012 “Justice GA” being planned for Phoenix. They require at least two plenary sessions and multiple mini-assemblies. Eliminating AIWs and other plenary business from the General Assembly agenda would free up time for social witness activities, proponents said, in keeping with a resolution passed by the 2010 General Assembly dedicating the Phoenix GA to “witnessing on immigration, racial, and economic justice.”
Debra Gray Boyd, a member of the First UU Church of Columbus, Ohio, and newly appointed member of the GA Planning Committee, told the delegates that it was “imperative that we maintain our right relationship with those in our community and with out partners in Arizona” to come together, stand for justice, and stand on the side of love. “If we don’t pass this amendment, we will spend an untold amount of time in plenary rather than out in partnership with those who invited us,” she said, to applause and chairs from the delegates, imploring them not to engage in the time-consuming process of AIWS in 2012.
The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix and head of the Arizona Immigration Ministry, also spoke in favor of the amendment. “The spirit and the meaning of what we passed at last year’s GA was to do as little business as possible so we can do education, community building, and social justice work,” she said.
A question arose during the debate on the first AIW amendment about what affect, if any, eliminating AIWs would have on the UUA’s social witness work and whether UUA staff would have the authority to do lobbying and organizing about issues that are not covered by statements of conscience.
Susan Leslie, UUA Director for Congregational Advocacy & Witness, responded that, for the UUA staff to sign onto a position on a social issue, it has to be grounded in something that comes from the GA. “If there is not a resolution, statement of conscience, or AIW, we cannot make a statement.” The staff would instead have to ask the UUA president to sign onto an action directly. Leslie noted that several years ago, the staff had to refrain from issuing a statement about stem cell research because there had not yet been an AIW on that topic yet.
Several delegates spoke from the “con” microphone, noting that they were uncomfortable going to a Justice GA without the opportunity to issue justice statements in the form of AIWs. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said the Rev. Finley Campbell of the First Unitarian Society in Chicago.
With long lines remaining at both the “pro” and “con” microphones, a delegate called for a vote, and the amendment passed by an overwhelming margin.
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).