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UUs establish legislative presence

California UUs lead the way with legislative ministry.
By Donald E. Skinner
March/April 2004 3.1.04

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Ever since the Rev. Thomas Starr King fought to keep California in the Union during the Civil War, Unitarian Universalists have been in the forefront of the state's social justice battles.

They have fought for public education, women's rights, civil rights, and, most recently, for gay marriage. But despite these efforts, often by individuals and by congregations, the denomination itself has not been a consistent presence in California, the nation's most populous state. The state's public religious voice tends to be conservative.

Now a unique, social justice ministry is expected to make Unitarian Universalist viewpoints loom larger in debates on important issues. The California UU Legislative Ministry, (www.cuulm.org) opened an office in January in Sacramento, the state capital. It is the most ambitious of several lobbying efforts in state capitals from coast to coast, which are growing in number.

The California office is headed by the Rev. Lindi Ramsden, who stepped down recently after seventeen years as senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of San Jose. The new office will help UUs stay on top of state social justice legislation and give liberal religion a presence at the capitol. Ramsden will spend part of her time there and will also work from her home in San Jose to create connections with congregational leaders across the state and build a network of individuals interested in advocacy at the state level. The new organization is designed to inspire UUs to work for social justice and give them the necessary tools to be effective.

Having a Sacramento office will also help UUs educate legislators and the news media about issues from a liberal religious perspective. “We are one of the few religious communities united in standing up for the rights of gay and lesbian families, for example,” said Ramsden.

But is it really possible that one advocacy group can speak for all UUs in California? Ramsden said a “listening campaign” is being conducted throughout the state, helping identify issues that are most important to California UUs. The issues the ministry will focus on will be those about which there is a broad consensus.

Karen Gunderson is a driving force behind CUULM. As a member of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Sacramento, and a social worker, she had long wished that UUs had more impact on important issues. When the Definition of Marriage ballot initiative to ban gay marriages passed in 2000 , for example, plenty of religious conservatives lobbied forcefully for its approval, but few religious liberal voices were heard in opposition.

Gunderson talked to others about her dream, including the Rev. Jody Shipley, a UU community minister. Shipley talked it up in her travels about the state and support for the ministry grew. “A lot of the credit for this belongs to her,” said Gunderson, who is now cochair of CUULM's governing board. Shipley died in 2002 . The Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, former senior minister at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church of Pasadena, and Abby Arnold, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica, were also instrumental.

Both the Pacific Southwest and Pacific Central districts contribute $5,000 annually to support CUULM. The UU Fund for Social Responsibility has contributed $40,000 over three years and a donor from Neighborhood Church has made a large contribution as well. Fundraising is continuing. The ministry's annual budget is expected to be around $150,000 this year and $215,000 next year.

Some states have one or two-day lobbying efforts annually. The First Unitarian Church of Richmond, Virginia, hosts an annual “Day of Possibilities” each January when congregations throughout Virginia send delegations to Richmond for two days of learning and lobbying, said the Rev. Enid Virago of Richmond.

Wendy Cooper, social justice coordinator at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin, sends information on legislative issues to UUs across the state via e-mail. Much of her time is spent showing people how to be effective advocates. “I'm always surprised at the number of sophisticated folks who are nervous about talking with their elected representatives,” she said. The society also sponsored a children's lobby day last spring. “We wrote up a list of issues that were threatened by budget cuts. Adults and children had a one-hour opportunity to talk with legislators. It was a good civics lesson.”

Rev. Virago, at Richmond, said the annual lobbying effort helps Unitarian Universalists connect with each other. “We become more state-focused by doing this,” she said. “As liberals we feel like we're in the minority here and not heard. This is one way we feel like we can have an impact.”

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