Monday, July 28, 2008


Our thoughts and prayers go out to the members and friends of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, grieving and healing after the shooting there this past weekend.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Caring for Ellery Schempp’s Legacy

Sermon by Scott Piepho, July 13. 2008

In oral argument before the United States Supreme Court, the customary introduction is “May it please the Court,” followed by a brief recitation of the facts of the case.

So. May it please the congregation, the facts which bring me before you today are as follows. As of 1959 the State of Pennsylvania – like many states – required, by law, each public school student to begin the day by reading from the Bible. Ellery Schempp, a 16-year-old public high school student and member of a Unitarian Church believed that the requirement discriminated against non-Christians (for that matter against non-Protestants) and that it was contrary to the Constitution. A number of his friends agreed with him, but ultimately none would join him in protest. So, on his own, he one day pulled out a copy of the Qu’ran he had borrowed from a friend’s father and silently read from it while his classmates were reading from their Bibles. Ellery’s protest infuriated his principal, he was suspended and the principal ultimately attempted to persuade colleges not to accept him because he was a trouble maker.

Thus began the long legal journey that culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision in Abington School District v. Schempp, one of two cases in which the Supreme Court found that school-led religious expression violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. A year earlier the Court had held in Engle. v. Vitale that mandatory school-led prayer was unconstitutional. In the Schempp case, the Court agreed that mandatory Bible readings offend the establishment clause of the constitution. For those of us who believe that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment protects minority faiths from majority coercion, these two decisions were essential.

Mr. Schempp -- OK Dr. Schempp – went on to a distinguished career as a chemical physicist, so he was quite likely one of those children who was above average. And we should acknowledge that Unitarians and Universalists are not the only religious minority which has pressed the case for religious liberty. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Native Americans, Santerians, Amish, all have taken important controversies before the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on this faith tradition that produced a young man with the guts and character of Ellery Schempp.

The Court did indeed find for Ellery and his family and struck down the Pennsylvania law in a decision rendered 45 years ago this past June.
The Court in the Schempp case reaffirmed the principle of government neutrality with regards to religion. Citing century-old opinion by Judge Alphonso Taft, father of President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the court held that “the ideal of our people as to religious freedom [is] one of "absolute equality before the law, of all religious opinions and sects . . . The government is neutral, and, while protecting all, it prefers none, and it disparages none."
Recounting the importance of religious freedom to early American colonists, the Court noted that “Nothing but the most telling of personal experiences in religious persecution suffered by our forebears . . . could have planted our belief in liberty of religious opinion any more deeply in our heritage . . . This freedom to worship was indispensable in a country whose people came from the four quarters of the earth and brought with them a diversity of religious opinion.”

Much is made of the “Wall of Separation” between church and state – whether there should be a wall, whether the framers of the Constitution intended such a wall and what the wall should look like. But it’s important to remember that the Court’s adoption of the “Wall” as metaphor and legal standard was in large part in service to this core notion of neutrality. The government protects all religion, prefers none, disparages none.

Sadly, forty five years after the triumph of Schempp, much of the American public hasn’t embraced Ellery Schempp’s legacy. Of all the guarantees in the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause remains among the most nettlesome. A 2007 poll by the First Amendment Center asked respondents if they agree with the statement that “Teachers and other public school officials should be allowed to lead prayer in public schools.” 58% of respondents either strongly agreed or mildly agreed with that statement, a figure that has fluctuated little over the last ten years.

Moreover, as the Federal Courts have shifted to the right over the past three decades, the strength of the neutrality principle has weakened so that now a majority of the Court apparently believes that government endorsement of religion is no longer a violation of neutrality, as long as that endorsement can be characterized as non-coercive.

Clearly, we as religious liberals, not to mention members of a religious minority, find ourselves in what some cultures fearfully call an interesting time. A discussion about what we can do necessarily involves discussion of what has gone wrong.

The easy way to finish out this sermon would be to discuss how tragically wrong – how historically, jurisprudentially, theologically wrong – are those who would impose government-sponsored religiosity upon us. That would be a great deal of fun. But that’s not what’s going to happen.

First, because I happen to believe that the purpose of religion is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and further believe that we as a congregation are far too comfortable to need further comforting, which leaves the other thing.

More importantly, as a pragmatic matter, little is gained by simply pointing out the errors of others and waiting for them to amend their ways. We are actors in this situation. We play a part.

And we have made errors. Three of them, by my assessment.

First, we have complacently relied upon the courts for too long. While religious conservatives have mobilized, engaged the political process, won converts and electoral victories, religious liberals have been content to decry the mixing of politics and religion.

This is changing. We are seeing more individuals of liberal faith bring that faith into the political sphere, and we are seeing more liberal religious organizing, including the group We Believe Ohio to which this church belongs.

What we still are not doing well is making our case to the general public. We lack a language for making the case for religious liberty which is compelling to moderate or conservative members of mainline faiths. This is in part because we haven’t ourselves thoroughly explored the tensions within the neutrality principle. When, for example, does purging a long-accepted quasi-religious practices – such as the legend “In God We Trust” on our money – rise to the level of disparagement of faith? Should we at some point speak out against attempts to curtail religious expression?

At the same time, we indulge our discomfort with witnessing our liberal faith. Our traditions do not include personal testimonial, and certainly not evangelism. But personal testimonial is the basic unit of conversation about faith, not to mention the most accessible. At the least, we should seek to create personal testimony about the vital power and indispensability of religious freedom.

Which leads to a second mistake we have made. We have allowed our side of the debate to be dominated by secularists. The neutrality principle embedded in the Constitution is different from European style secularism, in subtle but real ways. Unfortunately, many of the religion clause battles are now being fought by groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation which simultaneously advocate for extreme secularism and aggressively promote their atheist views.

Certainly it is their right to do so, but their agenda includes items not on our agenda. Furthermore, by allowing secularists to speak the most loudly, we have allowed the debate to devolve into one of belief versus nonbelief, when the debate should be about how best to protect freedom of conscience.

And at the extremes, secularist rhetoric is inconsistent with our principles. A faith that affirms the worth and dignity of all people should not stand mute as people of faith are slurred as “delusional” or when all people who believe in a personal God are rhetorically lumped together with extremists who fly planes into buildings in a perversion of faith. Yet religious liberals have has the most part stood on the sidelines as Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have attacked the faith of Christians and other theistic religions.

The liberal imperative to respect diversity of belief and culture does not find exception when the belief and culture being denigrated is located on the other side of the political spectrum.

Finally, while we in the Unitarian Universalist Church are in a unique position to model the respectful diverse religious community we would like our nation and our world to become, we have not done so. Protecting all faiths and denigrating none would serve nicely as a mission statement for the church. Unfortunately our modeling has been highly imperfect.

It seems at times like members of this church fall into two groups – those who think the church is too Christian and those who think it’s not Christian enough. We have the diversity. What we lack is the ability to disagree, and be disagreed with, and remain a loving community. What happens instead is we fragment, we avoid controversy. In the words of Rev. Nancy Arnold, we tolerate diversity instead of embracing diversity.

Embracing diversity is tough, spiritual work. God knows – er, God or Goddess or Gods or Goddesses or the Earth or the Universe or the sum of the Goodness and Wisdom in each of us – knows that if we who try so extravagantly not to offend find it hard, it’s hard.

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe we need to try less hard not to offend and more hard not to be offended.

We’ve come to a point, both as a church and as a society, where people adhere to a belief that they have a right not to be offended. In church, that sometimes translates into a right not to hear things with which they disagree. Rev. Moore has spoken more than once about the disconnect between being in a diverse congregation and expecting not be be offended. Personally, if I get through an entire church service hearing nothing with which I disagree – and disagree strongly – someone isn’t trying hard enough.

Happily, it’s not always this way. Earlier last fall we heard successive services from a member who is a UU Christian and a member who is an Atheistic UU Humanist. I’m thrilled to report that I found plenty with which to disagree in each sermon. But at the same time I braced myself throughout, inwardly cringing at the thought of members who might decide they’ve had enough of that.

Let us then challenge ourselves. Let’s challenge ourselves to stay here when we hear what we don’t want to hear. It might just be what someone – Someone – wants us to hear. Let’s challenge ourselves to challenge each other to speak proudly of our beliefs and engage in respectful dialogue with others.

What I’m suggesting here is impossible. Just like it is impossible for one sixteen-year-old boy, growing up in the fifties, to challenge rule and convention and change the world.

If we can challenge ourselves, we can challenge our church. If we can challenge our church, we can challenge our community. If we can challenge our community, we can challenge the world.

Let it be so.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Green Faire Press Announcement

If you haven't heard, the Green Faire is coming up. Here's the press release that went out this week:
Unitarian UniversalistChurch of Akron to Host Annual Green Faire

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron will hold its third annual Green Faire on Sunday, April 27, 2008 from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.

The Green Faire, is part of the church’s celebration of Earth Week along with the annual Interdependence Day worship service. The Faire promotes environmental awareness by offering staffed displays from area vendors of green products and agencies with environment-oriented missions. This year presenters include The Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Esperanza Threads organic clothing company, Dovetail Solar and Wind and Friends of the Crooked River. The Green Faire also includes music, food and children’s activities.


Where: Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron, 3300 Morewood Ave, Akron, 44333

When: April 27, 2008, 11:30-1:30

Admission is free. All are welcome.


Friday, February 08, 2008

UUs in Congress

The Washington Post/Newsweek web only "On Faith" published a fact sheet on the religious affiliations of members of Congress. Currently the House and Senate each have one member designated as "Unitarian." Presumably UU. They are Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA). With .04% of total members of Congress we exceed slightly our reported .03% of the general population.

In numbers we equal Buddists, as well as AMEs, Disciples of Christ and a number of other Christian denominations. We exceed Quakers and Muslims (one each) and Hindus of whom there are currently none.

A little something for this election season.

h/t Street Prophets.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Stuff We Learn in Church

Sunday the Social Action Committee showed The Story of Stuff, a documentary about the consumer/waste stream. If you missed it you can catch the full video on the website (though that requires a certain amount of stuff -- recent vintage computer, broadband connection, etc.) Alternatively, you can find it chopped up and posted on YouTube (again, stuff required.) Below is the first segment:

As acknowledged in the sardonic parentheticals above, moderating one's consumption of stuff is tricky business. Me, I love my stuff. That stuff I don't love I'd like to replace with better stuff. The Story of Stuff unblinkingly calls out us stuff lovers, especially we whose religious principles call on us to take care of the planet.

Here are a couple of ideas for those of you looking for further inspiration. Colin Beaven set out to reduce his family's environmental footprint to zero and became No Impact Man. The experiment is over, but you can read the experience and his continuing adventures on his blog. Dave Chameides is undertaking something similar this year -- a year of throwing nothing away to learn about his place in the waste stream. Closer to home, Akron-based Terra writes a blog on environmental news and tips.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Half of Guarding Religious Liberty Is Showing Up.

This evening Rev. Mary and Susan Davis sent out an email alert. The Richfield Village Board of Zoning Appeals was hearing an appeal regarding the proposed Sree Venkateswara Hindu temple. The proposed temple on Brecksville Road just off 77 has generated considerable controversy among some residents of Richfield. They claim it will generate traffic, noise and "the influx of strangers into the residential neighborhood." Stop me if you've heard this before.

Last month the Richfield Planning and Zoning Commission granted the temple a preliminary permit. Temple developers are working on tweaking the plans to ultimately get what's called a conditional use permit that would allow them to proceed with construction. Our congregation has been following the issue through our involvement with the Akron Area Interfaith Council, with special interest, given our own history with zoning and church construction.

We learned tonight that a group of residents styling themselves Concerned Richfield Homeowners is seeking to overturn the decision of the PZC. They simultaneously filed appeals with the Court of Common Pleas and the Board of Zoning Appeals.

That set up tonight's hearing. Happily, on a couple of hours noticed, between 12 and 15 members of UUCA showed up to offer support. Even more happily, our support was not necessary. The BZA dismissed the appeal based on an opinion of their law director that they do not have jurisdiction. Instead, the proper route to appeal the decision of the PZC is to the Court of Common Pleas, which the unhappy homeowners have done.

It should be noted that the issues are different in this case than in our case. In our case we had a nonconforming use -- that is our church is not a use permitted under the current zoning code, but was permissible at the time it was built. Expanding a nonconforming use is always a contentious issue and offers opportunities for decision makers to make judgement calls. Not so the Temple's case. As I read the accounts, it appears they are in conformance with the zoning code, so the only question is whether the Commission can put reasonable conditions on (things like landscaping and drainage) to ensure the facility doesn't disrupt surrounding properties.

What absolutely is not at issue, at least at this point, is any constitutional question. The court first has to decide if the Temple fits into the zoning scheme. If it does, the case is done and construction proceeds. If not, then the Temple may raise some Constitutional questions.

But I digress into legalisms. The big story here is our little church doing our part to ensure that everyone has freedom to worship as they see fit. It was a night well spent.