As rightwing extremists continue their attacks on reproductive rights, racial and gender justice, and BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and other marginalized communities, Unitarian Universalists across the country are countering with lawsuits, public witness, and other justice actions. Here are ways UUs are showing up for justice:
Suing to Defend Protesters in Oregon
First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, along with other plaintiffs, sued the Trump administration in July 2020 alleging the Department of Homeland Security violated their First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of religion by using extreme tactics to suppress protests following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd. Those tactics included federal agents seizing peaceful protesters off the streets and placing them in unmarked police vehicles, the lawsuit claimed. In the fall of 2020, a federal court sided with First Unitarian and the other plaintiffs, granting an injunction against the government.
“This ruling in favor of religious freedom and the right to free speech came at a critical time in our nation's history.”
Once the Trump administration ended and President Joe Biden was inaugurated, the lawsuit was declared moot. However, the court awarded the plaintiffs more than $144,000 in attorneys’ fees and $5,000 in costs, which the U.S. Department of Justice did not appeal. “This case affirms that our Unitarian Universalist beliefs call us to witness for justice, and that the government is accountable for infringing our right to exercise our religious practices in public,” Dana Buhl, director of social justice at First Unitarian, told UU World. “This ruling in favor of religious freedom and the right to free speech came at a critical time in our nation's history.”
Challenging an Abortion Ban in Missouri
Two UU ministers, Rev. Krista Taves and Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, are among more than a dozen clergy plaintiffs in a case challenging Missouri’s restrictive abortion law. The law, which bans abortion except in cases of medical emergency, violates the separation of church and state enshrined in the Missouri constitution, argue the plaintiffs, who are partnering in the lawsuit with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the National Women’s Law Center. The law, passed days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, states that life begins at conception, a conservative Christian position that the plaintiffs say runs counter to their religious beliefs.
“I chose to become a plaintiff in this case because of our Unitarian Universalist faith’s calling to honor each body as sacred and each person as an inherently worthy and dignified moral agent."
–Rev. Molly Housh Gordon
Taves, a minister at both Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood, Missouri, and First Unitarian Church in Alton, Illinois, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in January, when the suit was filed, that her faith supports a person’s right to make moral decisions about their own body.
Housh Gordon, minister at the UU Church of Columbia, Missouri, told UU World: “I chose to become a plaintiff in this case because of our Unitarian Universalist faith’s calling to honor each body as sacred and each person as an inherently worthy and dignified moral agent. I joined this case because as a mid-Missourian I know what it is to keep fighting for each other through barrier after barrier after abortion access was entirely removed from the area in 2018. I joined this case because Missouri’s maternal mortality rate has been rising for twenty years, especially among Black women, and denying access to the full range of reproductive healthcare is deadly to childbearing people. This case is one strategy among many in our shared work of collective liberation.”
Fighting for Trans Kids in Alabama
The Unitarian Universalist Association, along with other religious organizations and twenty-eight Alabama clergy, filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit supporting trans youth seeking gender-affirming care in Alabama, in the case of Eknes-Tucker, et al. v. Governor of the State of Alabama, et al. The appeal arose from a lawsuit challenging the April 2022 passage of SB 184, which criminalizes providing gender-affirming medical care for trans youth in Alabama. Alabama seeks reversal of a federal judge’s order prohibiting enforcement pending trial—now scheduled for August 2023—of portions of the law that criminalize treating trans youth with puberty blockers or hormones to affirm their gender identity.
Two UUs who are lawyers, Susan Kay Weaver and Eric Alan Isaacson, wrote the appellate amicus brief. The brief argues that the law interferes with parents’ fundamental right to seek the medical care that best affirms and meets their children’s needs so that they may flourish. Further, it affirms that the law violates equal protection because it discriminates on the basis of gender and is not related to the government’s interest in protecting minors. The brief also pushes back on theological arguments regarding “natural law” argued by some proponents of the legislation. “Nothing in the Constitution authorizes federal courts to adjudicate cases on the basis of theological inquiries. The First Amendment’s religion clauses flatly preclude any such approach to constitutional decision-making,” the brief says. Former UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray condemned the law as “dehumanizing and dangerous legislation [that] will ensure that trans youth in Alabama will be even more vulnerable and isolated in their communities.”
Supporting an Ousted Legislator in Tennessee
Tennessee state Representative Justin Pearson of Memphis served as a guest preacher at the Church of the River (First Unitarian Church of Memphis) on Easter Sunday 2023. Two days earlier, Pearson and another Democratic legislator, Justin Jones of Nashville—both Black men—were expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives by the Republican supermajority after speaking on the floor to demand gun reform following a mass shooting in Nashville. A third legislator who protested with them, Gloria Jones of Knoxville, a white woman, narrowly avoided being expelled. Both Pearson and Jones were reinstated by local governments less than a week later. Their expulsion served to reinvigorate gun reform activists around the country, and they were invited to the White House, where President Biden said it was an honor to meet them.
“Because we walked to the well of the House out of turn, resolutions were unjustly and undemocratically filed against us on these trumped-up charges,” Pearson said at the service. He reminded the UU congregation that fifty-five years ago that week, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis by gun violence. Quoting King, Pearson said, “The movement for justice lives or dies in Memphis.”
Protecting Voting Rights in North Carolina
The “Harper” in Moore v. Harper, a closely watched Supreme Court case that held enormous implications for fair elections, is Becky Harper, a member of the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, North Carolina. Harper is a board member with Common Cause North Carolina, which led legal arguments to limit partisan gerrymandering; the UUA supported this position. Do state lawmakers have ultimate authority to determine rules in federal elections—a so-called “independent state legislature theory” supported by North Carolina Republicans—or do state courts have authority to assess whether rules and maps created by legislators comply with law? In a 6-3 decision announced on June 27, SCOTUS agreed with Harper, holding the North Carolina Supreme Court can review the legislature’s congressional districting plans.
In alignment with UU values, the UUA took positions on other recent SCOTUS cases, asking the court to:
- uphold the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act to protect Native American children (Haaland v. Brackeen); SCOTUS on June 15 upheld the Act 7-2;
- support the ability of higher education to consider race as an affirmative action measure in student admissions (Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvardand Students for Fair Admissions v. U. of North Carolina); on June 29 the court, 6-3, banned affirmative action in college admissions;
- reject a challenge by Louisiana and Texas to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy of prioritizing arrests and deportations of convicted criminals (U.S. v. Texas); on June 23, the court held 8-1 that states lack standing to make the challenge;
- prevent a website designer from refusing to provide services to LGBTQIA+ customers (303 Creative v. Elenis); on June 30, SCOTUS 6-3 sided with the website designer on First Amendment grounds;
- support the Navajo Nation’s position that the United States has a treaty-based duty to protect its water interests (Arizona v. Navajo Nation); on June 22, SCOTUS held 5-4 that the United States did not have to take affirmative steps to secure water for the Nation.
Read more about the UUA’s positions on SCOTUS cases in “U.S. Supreme Court Cases that Impact UU Principles.”