Unitarian Universalists are part of a coalition that fought repeal of the Affordable Care Act through ongoing acts of civil disobedience over two weeks in July in Washington, D.C., including protests in the Senate gallery and holding mock funeral processions symbolizing the millions of people whose lives are in danger if the law is repealed.
On Thursday, July 27, a dozen or so UUs were among seventy-five people who held a press conference on the Capitol lawn, after which thirty of them, mostly faith leaders, sat in the gallery as senators debated a so-called “skinny repeal” that would gut the law with a series of amendments. The effort was defeated early the next morning in a 49-to-51 vote.
“We sat silently, identifiable as faith leaders, reminding them we were watching,” said the Rev. Robin Tanner, minister of worship and outreach at Beacon UU Congregation in Summit, New Jersey.
During the press conference, people signed a moral declaration insisting that healthcare is a human right. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, told the group he intended to read the declaration from the floor of the Senate and that he would pass copies to every other senator, Tanner said. Taking the lead, the Rev. Dr. Jaqui Lewis, senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City, delivered a groundswell petition supporting the ACA, with 2,376 signatures, to the offices of two key Republican leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
The July 27 action was the fourth in two weeks by a coalition of faith leaders, healthcare professionals, and others fighting attempts to repeal the ACA, which Republicans had made a top priority. Repeal of the law would increase the number of Americans without health insurance by 32 million, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Two days earlier, on Tuesday, July 25, UUs were among thirty-one faith leaders, physicians, and others who protested in the gallery against efforts to repeal the ACA, also known as Obamacare. As a procedural vote was underway, the group marched into the Senate shouting, “Kill the bill! Don’t kill us!” and “Shame, shame, shame!” About twenty-one people were arrested, including the Rev. David Helfer, minister of the UU Congregation of South County, Rhode Island.
“We have been coming to raise the moral conscience of Congress, that is the call,” said Tanner, one of the organizers of the July 25th action, who was arrested on July 13 during the coalition’s first action. “We’ve been insisting that healthcare is a human right. We are speaking up before we have to bury people who are killed by this bill.”
On July 25, before they entered the gallery, Tanner and other faith leaders, including the Rev. Traci Blackmon, acting executive minister of justice and witness ministries at the United Church of Christ, participated in a mock funeral and carried a coffin near McConnell’s office.
Senate Republicans, with the urging of President Trump, have made repeated efforts to repeal the ACA. On Wednesday, July 26, the Senate failed to pass a repeal, with only forty-five Senators voting in favor, short of the fifty votes needed. It was the second time in two days that the Senate had attempted to dismantle the ACA: on July 25, an attempt to partially repeal and replace the healthcare law also failed. However, Republican leaders vowed to continue their efforts, and Tanner said the coalition will continue to fight for the rights of people to have healthcare.
“We will continue to bear witness for the lives of our neighbors, our sisters, our brothers, our soul siblings, our parents, our grandparents, and our children,” Tanner said. “Until this Congress stops this cruelty and this assault on human life, we are going to be here.”
Within the coalition, the Unitarian Universalist Association is working with a number of partners, including Auburn Seminary, Faith in Public Life, Justice Action Mobilization Network, Middle Collegiate Church in New York City, the National Physicians Alliance, Physicians for a National Health Program, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Red Letter Christians, Repairers of the Breach, Standing on the Side of Love, and the United Church of Christ.
At the coalition’s first action, on July 13 at McConnell’s office in the Russell Senate Office Building, Tanner was the only UU arrested. Eleven people, including Tanner and the Rev. William J. Barber II, were arrested when they refused to leave.
The coalition’s second action took place on July 18 outside McConnell’s office in the Senate building, where two UU ministers, the Rev. Richard Nugent and the Rev. Dr. Beth Johnson, were among those arrested.
“Healthcare has been an issue close to my heart,” said Nugent, who has a long career in healthcare policy and manages the UUA’s health plan for over 1,200 UUA and UU congregations’ employees and families. “We follow the ACA very closely because we have to comply with it, so this effort by the Republican leadership in the House and Senate to not only gut the ACA but to essentially dismantle Medicaid struck a nerve. I thought the best way to call attention was to commit civil disobedience and be arrested.”
This story originally said that Barber was arrested on July 13 as part of a group of black clergy. He was arrested as part of the same multiracial coalition as Tanner.