240 Unitarian Universalists lobby legislators on reproductive justice, immigrant and refugee justice, and economic justice issues.
Texans from Unitarian Universalist congregations throughout the state gather to lobby state legislators in February. (© 2017 Jane Parsons)
As part of a Legislative Action Day, 240 Unitarian Universalists from all over Texas traveled to Austin on February 15 to meet with legislators and amplify the liberal religious voice to fight the state’s increasingly right-wing agenda, including proposed legislation to punish sanctuary cities and a bill to restrict transgender people’s access to public bathrooms.
Two buses of UUs from Dallas, one bus from Houston, a “gigantic carpooling” group from San Antonio, “and people from little towns and hamlets from all across Texas” participated, said the Rev. Chuck Freeman, executive director of Texas UU Justice Ministry (TXUUJM), the statewide network of UU congregations and individuals that organized the Legislative Action Day. UUs met with legislators and legislative aides to discuss three key issues—reproductive justice, immigrant and refugee justice, and economic justice—and let them know that not all people of faith are politically conservative.
“In a state where there are only 5,000 UUs, we’re trying to create a voice bigger than our presence in the state,” said Mike Phillips, chair of TXUUJM. This year’s turnout was more than twice that of the first TXUUJM Legislative Action Day two years ago, when one hundred UUs from twenty-one Texas congregations went to Austin, the state capital, Freeman said. (The Texas legislature meets every two years.)
About two-thirds of Texans identify as Republican, and Phillips says the state senate is dominated by the tea party, though most metropolitan areas, including Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, trend Democratic. The 240 UUs, supplied with talking points by TXUUJM, spoke to their representatives in favor of a bill that would provide scholarships for job training for the unemployed, and against new state rules that require that fetal remains after abortions or miscarriages be buried or cremated instead of disposed as medical waste.
A primary focus was to voice strong opposition to the proposed Sanctuary City bill, which would withhold state funds from cities where local police fail to enforce federal immigration laws if requested to do so by federal officials, including inquiring about the immigration status of witnesses to crimes. City police chiefs testified that the law will hinder criminal investigations and harm police-community relationships, said Phillips.
Forces in favor of the Sanctuary City bill are so strong that despite efforts by the Texas ACLU, TXUUJM, and others, Freeman said, “If we’re able to avoid that, it’ll be a miracle.” A top priority for the governor and lieutenant governor, the bill passed the state senate on February 8 and is headed to the house. A day earlier, President Donald Trump signed an executive order withholding federal funding from any state that doesn’t fully cooperate with immigration enforcement. “I do believe these guys are emboldened by the Trump election, particularly with the anti-Sanctuary bill,” Phillips said.
TXUUJM is working on a number of fronts, from direct action supporting individuals arrested by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to policy work. It is conducting a “Sanctuary in the Streets” initiative, training 250 people to do nonviolent actions in response to arrests of undocumented immigrants by ICE, Phillips said. “We’re working on all levels to make our presence and our faith principles known,” he said.
TXUUJM has worked closely for the past several years with the UU Service Committee on immigration and refugee issues, and this year it has received two grants totaling $23,000 from the UUSC to continue that work, Phillips said.
In February, Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales traveled with a group of UU donors to San Antonio to witness the work that UUs and the UUSC are doing with RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), which provides legal and other services for immigrants and refugees in Texas.
TXUUJM is also working against a proposed bill that would prevent transgender people from using the public bathroom of their choice. On March 8, Freeman waited 17 hours to testify against the bill at a senate hearing, and finally spoke at 3:30 a.m. Although 253 people spoke against it and 29 in favor, the senate committee voted 7 to 1 for the bill, which will now go to a full senate vote, noted Freeman.
A number of organizations have threatened to boycott Texas as a site for meetings and conventions if the bill passes, which would be similar to the fallout in North Carolina from its transgender bathroom bill, so there is significant opposition to the proposal from the Texas business community, Phillips said. “This shows you how deep their bigotry really runs, that in a Republican-led state they’re willing to jeopardize the business climate,” said Freeman.
TXUUJM is one of about two dozen UU statewide organizations in the Coalition of UU State Action Networks (CUUSAN), which works closely with the UUSC and the UUA. CUUSAN provides a number of resources to states looking to create statewide coalitions. “We’re getting a lot more synergy between the UUA and the UUSC and state action networks, so instead of people doing their separate things, there’s a lot more coordination, and the UUSC is backing it up with grants,” said Freeman.
TXUUJM is also in the middle of a fundraising campaign called “1,000 Courageous, Sustaining UUs for Justice” to raise capital funds, including to bring Freeman from a part- to full-time position.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.