As Unitarian Universalists, we understand freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to be basic to our congregational polity as well as to our understanding of democracy.

The first amendment of the Bill of Rights articulates this right:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Faithful congregational leaders are committed to transparency and to processes that make space for dialogue from the minority as well as majority–from the margins as well as the center.  We bring this ethic to the public sphere as well, in our work–as individuals–in the political arena.  This comes from our theological belief that the will of God (or the movement of the Spirit, or the Arc of the Universe) is best discerned by a group of thoughtful and committed people in dialogue.

In my recent visit to West Virginia’s Coal Country, I toured the Whipple Company Store. Hearing the stories of what it was like living in a company-owned town brought to mind this classic folk song:

But the stories of control were not limited to the economic hole that coal miners found themselves in. We learned how the families were treated by the coal companies.  The pastors and school teachers were all on the company payroll. The companies hired private police agencies (who acted more like uniformed thugs) to patrol the town.  The women were not allowed to handle real money.  Since the company store was only open when the men were in the mines, the women had to shop with company scrip–which was worth less than cash–to buy the goods they needed at the prices set by the company.

The women were not allowed to talk to one another in their yards or homes.  When they were molested or raped, they had no recourse.  They had no privacy: Window shades had to be kept open during the day.  If their husband was killed in the mine, the family had to vacate the company house within 24 hours after the burial.  The only place women could talk to one another was the company store, where their conversations could be monitored.  The store at Whipple was designed like a fortress on the outside with guards posted at all of the entrances.  The inside of the store was designed in a round, so that the acoustics allowed a guard posted in the center to hear every word spoken in the space.  Any open talk or action toward unionizing was dealt with harshly.  Women learned to speak in code, using flower names or quilt patterns to let the others know about clandestine union-planning meetings.  Two of the main demands of the union organizers were to protect the privacy of the women, and to decide on their own preachers.

Unitarian Universalist leaders have often been champions of the human rights codified in the First Amendment.  My favorite story is of A. Powell Davies (minister of All Souls UU Church in Washington D.C.) criticizing the red-baiting of Senator McCarthy back in the 1950s. But it is always helpful to remind ourselves of the need to protect free speech and free assembly to allow the free flow of ideas in service of the Beloved Community.


About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.