Public Witness Policy
First Parish encourages its members to live their faith through specific words and deeds. Our mission statement calls us to “encourage each other on our spiritual journeys” and “challenge the excesses and injustices of our time.” Public witness – i.e., public statements about our moral principles and their practical applications – can be an important part of living our faith.
We are aware, however, that our members may have different moral and political beliefs and priorities. We are also aware that statements made on behalf of First Parish may affect both our members’ sense of belonging and our community’s reputation in the larger community. We therefore expect members of the First Parish community to observe the following policies and procedures regarding public witness.
A. Regarding the Authority to Make a Statement of Public Witness
(1) Individuals may speak for themselves only. First Parish honors the right of individual conscience, and our members are encouraged to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Individuals may not, however, speak for First Parish as a whole unless they have been authorized to do so by the processes outlined below.
- For example: Individuals at a community gathering may say they are First Parish members and describe their roles at First Parish, state their own opinions, and discuss UU principles, traditions, etc. They may not, however, commit First Parish to a particular action or suggest that their opinions represent First Parish.
(2) A standing committee or other group within First Parish may speak only on behalf of their committee or group. They may not speak on behalf of First Parish as a whole.
- For example: The Social Justice Committee may choose to sponsor or co-sponsor an event. It must then say that the Social Justice Committee sponsors that event, not that First Parish sponsors that event. Only the Parish Committee may authorize First Parish as a whole to sponsor or co‑sponsor an event.
(3) Members of the Executive Committee may speak for First Parish on a matter of public witness only if a situation is urgent or emergent and the member of the Executive Committee is confident that the large majority of First Parish members would agree with the statement.
- For example: If an act of violent bigotry occurred in Arlington or a neighboring community, a member of the Executive Committee could state to the media that First Parish abhors such actions.
(4) The Parish Committee may speak for First Parish on a matter of public witness only if it determines, through deliberation and a vote recorded in the Parish Committee minutes, that a statement or action is likely to be regarded by a large majority of First Parish members as consistent with the mission, principles, and purposes of First Parish.
- For example: Only the Parish Committee may approve the placement of a banner with a statement of public witness on the First Parish grounds or send a letter to a public official or media outlet on behalf of First Parish.
(5) The strongest way in which First Parish speaks is by passing a resolution of public witness at a congregational meeting.
- For example: Anyone may say, in any forum, that First Parish supports GLBT equality, because the congregation has passed the Welcoming Congregation resolution.
- A proposed resolution of public witness must be mailed as part of the warrant for the congregational meeting at which it is discussed. It must be approved by at least two-thirds of the members present to pass, and quorum for this meeting is 30 percent of the membership.
- The texts of the resolutions of public witness that have been adopted by the congregation can be found on the First Parish website.
- Even if the congregation has adopted a resolution of public witness on a topic, members are expected to use their good judgment when speaking in public. For example, First Parish has adopted a Green Sanctuary resolution, but that does not mean the congregation supports every specific proposal that may be put forward in the name of climate justice. If in doubt, confine statements to general principles that the congregation indubitably supports.
- Members who are preparing for a public statement related to First Parish should generally consult with members of the Social Justice Committee, Parish Committee, and/or staff. Nothing in this policy, however, supersedes freedom of the pulpit.
B. Regarding the Content of Public Witness
All statements of public witness must be compatible with the First Parish mission and the traditions and principles of Unitarian Universalism.
By law, a religious institution may not support or oppose a candidate for public office. A religious institution may, however, take a stand on public policy issues and support or oppose specific legislation or ballot initiatives.
- For example: First Parish committees and other groups may collect signatures for a ballot question or organize members to lobby legislators to support or oppose a specific bill. They may not, however, engage in any statement or action that suggests they support or oppose a specific candidate for public office.
- Individuals who are First Parish members may work on the political campaign of a candidate for public office, but they must not suggest that they are doing so as a representative of First Parish or conduct campaign activities within the First Parish building or grounds.
(1) The Social Justice Committee is the clearinghouse for all social justice initiatives related to First Parish. Individuals or groups that wish to engage in a social justice activity, including a possible statement of public witness, should start by communicating and coordinating with the Social Justice Committee.
(2) The Executive Committee is responsible for setting the agenda for Parish Committee meetings. Groups or individuals who wish to propose a statement of public witness to the Parish Committee or a resolution of public witness to the congregation should start by communicating their proposal to the Executive Committee. Preference will be given to proposals that:
(a) Have the support of the Social Justice Committee
(b) Come from a recognized First Parish committee or group rather than an individual or ad hoc group gathered for the purpose
(c) Seem likely to have broad support in the congregation
(d) Have been thoroughly and thoughtfully developed
(e) Are timely
(3) Banners on the First Parish grounds: Only the Parish Committee may approve the display of a banner bearing a statement of public witness or a spiritual message on the First Parish grounds.
- Other committees and groups associated with First Parish may display only temporary signs announcing a specific event (e.g. a concert, blood drive, or the Harvest Moon Fair).
- Banners are more likely to be approved if they are related to other activities in the congregation. Banners conveying a statement of public witness require the support of the Social Justice Committee; a group or individual may propose a banner with another type of spiritual message directly to the Executive Committee. Generally, only one banner will be displayed at a time.
(4) First Parish’s banner:
The First Parish banner may be displayed at the following events:
The UU General Assembly
Arlington’s Town Day
Gay Pride parades
350.org and Mothers Out Front rallies and events
Observations of Martin Luther King Day
Inside the First Parish building
In other cases, a committee or group may display the First Parish banner only with the approval of the Parish Committee or the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee may approve the display of the First Parish banner only if it is confident that most members of the congregation would consider such use uncontroversial.
Approved by the Parish Committee, May 12, 2015