Delegates approve ethical eating and a smaller board

Delegates approve ethical eating and a smaller board

More than 4,000 Unitarian Universalists gather in Charlotte at General Assembly, approve governance reforms, balk at elimination of AIWs.


The 50th General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association adopted a Statement of Conscience (SOC) promoting “ethical eating” and approved 11 bylaw amendments, including one that will reduce the size of the Board of Trustees starting in 2013. Another resolution cleared Actions of Immediate Witness (AIWs) from the agenda of the 2012 Justice GA in Phoenix, Ariz., but will restore them in a modified form at the 2013 GA. Delegates rejected a proposal from the board to eliminate AIWs entirely.

Meeting in Charlotte, N.C., June 22-26, the delegates approved three of four proposed AIWs and voted for three responsive resolutions.

The Statement of Conscience, “Ethical Eating: Food & Environmental Justice,” which has been in the works ever since it was proposed at GA 2008 in Fort Lauderdale, passed overwhelmingly. The four-page statement calls on UUs to “eat ethically by becoming aware of the ways that food choice affects one’s health and the health of the planet.” It makes reference to industrial farming, condemns mistreatment of animals and workers in food production, encourages a diet based more on plants than animals, and invites people to seek out and advocate for food that is raised responsibly. The statement also urges congregations to work for “food justice” so that everyone can have “adequate, nutritious food.”

The statement drew input from more than 400 congregations. There was minimal debate when it came up for a vote by the GA. Several people expressed concern that the statement would require all UUs to become vegetarians; however, it does not. Other delegates were concerned that the statement doesn’t address the circumstances of low-income people. Karl Paananen, a Church of the Larger Fellowship delegate from Lansing, Mich., who described himself as a small businessman, waved his food stamps card and said, “I don’t feel included in this statement. I simply cannot think about these things.” He said he knew he should not be eating highly processed foods, but for him it was a matter of survival.

The Rev. John Gibb Millspaugh, co-minister of the Winchester, Mass., Unitarian Society and chair of a task force that helped create the Statement of Conscience, said that the SOC does not dictate actions by congregations, but it does suggest a number of ways they can engage with food issues. “Different actions will make sense for different congregations,” he said.

The agenda was replete with proposed bylaw amendments, with delegates passing 11 of 12 that came before them.

After impassioned debate during a Sunday plenary on the future of AIWs, which are social witness resolutions brought to the General Assembly by petition, delegates overwhelmingly voted in favor of the second of two proposals that would eliminate AIWs from the agenda of the 2012 Justice GA in Phoenix. The plan delegates approved will reconstitute AIWs with the 2013 GA, reducing the allowable number of AIWs from six to three.

Delegates did not approve a proposal from the Board of Trustees that would have eliminated AIWs from the 2012 agenda with no provision to restore them. It needed a two-thirds majority of delegates to pass. However, in a counted vote, 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 board leaders and others expressing concerns that the social witness resolutions brought to the GA by petition were not appropriate for the 2012 “Justice GA” being planned for Phoenix. AIWs require at least two plenary sessions and multiple mini-assemblies. Eliminating AIWs and other plenary business from the GA 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.”

“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,” said Debra Gray Boyd, a member of the First UU Church of Columbus, Ohio, and newly appointed member of the GA Planning Committee. She implored delegates 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 effect, if any, eliminating AIWs would have on the UUA’s social witness work and whether UUA staff would have the authority to lobby and organize about issues that are not covered by Statements of Conscience.

Susan Leslie, director for Congregational Advocacy & Witness, responded that UUA staff can only sign onto a position on a social issue if it can 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,” she said. The staff would instead have to ask the UUA president to sign onto an action personally. Leslie noted that several years ago, the staff refrained from issuing a statement about stem cell research because there had not yet been an AIW on that topic.

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, a member of First Unitarian Church of Chicago.

The Assembly approved a proposal to shrink the size of the UUA Board of Trustees from 26 members to 14 during a Saturday plenary. The bylaw amendment ends the election of UUA trustees by districts, and makes all trustees “at large” positions. Terms will be reduced from four years to three years. Currently serving trustees will continue until 2013, when the smaller board will begin.

Though some delegates expressed reservations over losing board members representing districts, other said that it made sense to construct a board intentionally to ensure a mix of skills and provide representation for young adults, youth, people of color, and other historically marginalized groups.

“I support replacing a monocultural board with a rainbow board,” said the Rev. Nate Walker, minister of First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. “We will expand access to leadership opportunities and increase connections to the growing edges of our religious tradition.”

A related bylaw amendment approved by delegates will shorten the terms of members of the Nominating Committee from one six-year term to two three-year terms. The Rev. Susan Ritchie, trustee from the Ohio Meadville District, spoke on behalf of the amendment. With the GA’s passage of the amendment to reduce the size of the Board of Trustees, she said, the Nominating Committee—which will name candidates for the board and other committees—will have greater responsibility. At a mini-assembly on the amendment earlier in the week, Ritchie asserted that it reflects the board’s understanding that it was giving more power to the Nominating Committee and that it would benefit from a steady rotation of members. That rotation could also ensure the Nominating Committee is also balanced for diversity.

Delegates approved a measure that would allow off-site voting by GA delegates. The change is meant to allow people who cannot come to GA because of financial issues or reasons of physical disability or lack of time off from work to participate in the work of the association. Off-site voting was tested at this GA. More than 30 people, selected as delegates by their congregations, participated in plenary sessions, engaging in discussions and voting remotely. Their votes were recorded, but not counted, this year.

Other approved bylaw amendments:

  • Replaced the terms “church” and “fellowship” in the UUA bylaws with the more inclusive term “congregation,” and removed the word “local” from the phrase “local congregation,” which many delegates supported as a way to encourage non-local or “virtual” congregations;

  • Clarified the procedures for the Religious Education Credentialing Committee in either revoking or suspending the credentialed status of a religious educator;

  • Modified the condition for appointment to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC);

  • Amended the bylaws to align with revised MFC rules that have eliminated the category of “Associate Ministerial Fellowship”;

  • Amended Article XV of the bylaws to revise the procedure for changing the UUA’s Principles and Purposes, making it possible for the General Assembly to amend proposed new Principles and Purposes during the first of two years of consideration;

  • Substituted the word “staff” for the name of a specific staff group, leaving more flexibility in staffing structures; and

  • Acknowledged the decision made by the former Thomas Jefferson District to change its name to the Southeast District.

The Assembly approved three of four proposed AIWs. One AIW protests U.S. Rep. Peter King’s hearings on “Muslim Radicalization.” Another AIW calls for support of the California supermarket workers’ “struggle for decent wages and benefits.” The third AIW calls on UUs to oppose the U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That decision, according to the AIW, “enshrined corporations as persons and equated money with speech.”

Support for a fourth AIW, which called for an end to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, failed to gain approval of the required two-thirds of GA delegates. A similar measure failed last year, too.

The General Assembly also approved three Responsive Resolutions at the close of the Sunday afternoon business session.

The first, introduced by the Rev. Dr. Michael Tino, minister of the UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester in Mount Kisco, N.Y., celebrates New York State’s approval of marriage equality on June 24 and praised the role that Unitarian Universalist congregations played in that campaign. It also calls on congregations to continue to advocate for equality.

The second, introduced by the Rev. Orlanda Brugnola of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., called on UUs to begin to learn Spanish before coming to GA 2012 in Phoenix.

The third resolution, by Rob Smith of Valley UU Congregation in Chandler, Ariz., called on the Board of Trustees, UUA staff, and the GA Planning Committee to facilitate a youth and young adult “action ministry” to train people around the issues that UUs will be involved with in Phoenix next summer.

[Updated 7.5.11:] During the presentation of responsive resolutions, Debra Gray Boyd of Columbus, Ohio, asked the Board of Trustees to recommit to developing a “covenant of right relations” for the UUA community, as a 2010 responsive resolution had asked the board to do by this year. Boyd asked delegates to extend the timeframe for the 2010 responsive resolution to 2013. The request is in response to disrespectful behavior on UU email lists and at GA last year, Boyd told UU World after delegates endorsed her request.

UUA Secretary Tom Loughrey reported on Sunday that 4,082 people attended GA, including 2,059 delegates.

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Correction 7.6.11: An earlier version of this story reported that the 2011 General Assembly approved four responsive resolutions. Only three resolutions were introduced and approved. A fourth presentation asked delegates to reaffirm a resolution approved in 2010 that asked the Board of Trustees to develop a "covenant of right relations."

Correction 7.6.11: An earlier version of this story misspelled Debra Gray Boyd's name.