Annual Meeting Speaks Out On Restrooms, Minimum Wage, Greenhouse Gases

6/14/2016

Delegates to the 149th Annual Meeting of the Connecticut Conference called on churches to provide gender neutral restrooms, support a $15 an hour minimum wage and take action to reduce greenhouse gases. They also voted to increase the per capita rate paid by churches to the Conference setting from $8 to $10 in 2017.

Gender Neutral Restrooms Resolution Approved

Delegates approved a resolution that recommends all future Conference annual meetings be held only in facilities with gender neutral restrooms, and called on the churches of the Conference to "consider creating a more perfect welcome" by designating such restrooms in their own facilities.

This makes the Connecticut Conference the first regional body of the United Church of Christ to make such a commitment for its meetings, according to the Open and Affirming Coalition.

"I have to admit that when I began to consider this resolution I had no idea what an issue this was going to be in the news," said Greg Gray, chair of the Conference's ONA Ministry Team. "But we now have the opportunity to be a prophetic voice."

Gray referred to a Kroger's grocery store sign, which has been taking social media by storm, declaring the store has unisex restrooms "because sometimes gender specific toilets put others into uncomfortable situations."

"We, as the beloved community, can do better than a grocery store," Gray said.

Although there was some discussion about the exact wording of the resolution, it passed with overwhelming support.

Minimum Wage Resolution Approved

Delegates also passed a resolution calling on the Conference's Legislative Advocate, and on local church members, to work in support of legislation to raise the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour. The resolution also asks churches to examine their own compensation to assure all staff are paid at least $15 an hour by 2019, and it calls on the Conference to make educational resources on the issue available and to forward the resolution to the national General Synod.

David Biklen, of the Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, referred to the earlier comment on grocery stores and said "we can make the grocery store itself better" by increasing the minimum wage.

He pointed out that the state's current minimum wage of $9.60, soon to be increased to $10, leaves a family of four still thousands of dollars short of the federal minimum poverty level. And The Rev. Damaris Whittaker of the First Church of Christ in Hartford said a two-bedroom apartment in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven rents for $1500 - $1700 a month – unaffordable to someone making $10 an hour, or $1600 a month if they are working full-time.

The Rev. Denise Terry, of the East Granby Congregational Church, argued that minimum wage is not sustainable for her congregation or for many small businesses, and said it is not meant to provide a living wage above the poverty line. Terry said there are pastors and other professionals with master's degrees who barely make $15 an hour, or $31,200 a year.

Another delegate argued that raising wages for the least skilled and most inexperienced workers would cause all wages to be increased, something not affordable for most businesses, particularly small businesses. He said the poorest people would be the ones to suffer, because their jobs would be eliminated in favor of robots and automation.

Biklen said protections for small businesses have been built into legislation in other states, such as New York, that have increased the minimum wage.

Rev. Thea Racelis

And The Rev. Thea Racelis, of South Congregational Church in Middletown, reminded delegates that those earning minimum wage are not just high school students anymore, but parents with children.

"We're talking about these people as if they are not in this room, in our pews, and in some of our pulpits" she said. "To say that we can't aspire to more than making the bare minimum of the federal poverty line to me is sinful and reprehensible. We are church and we can aspire to more and God's people deserve more."

Resolution On Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Delegates approved a resolution in support of state legislation to rapidly increase renewable energy resources, and to "declare it imperative" that congregations, individuals, businesses and other entities act to reduce their own levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

The resolution calls on the Conference's Legislative Advocate and churches to support the effort of the Governor's Council on Climate Change, which has been charged with developing a plan to meet the state's mandated goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And it calls on all settings of the church to support the education of clergy and laity on the issues and to "sharpen the focus on what must be our individual and collective visions of a sustainable Creation for our generation and future generations and the whole fabric of earthly life."

Resolution In Opposition Of Marijuana Legalization Rejected

Delegates declined to approve a resolution that would have opposed the further legalization of marijuana in Connecticut. The resolution was brought by the First Congregational Church of Guilford, citing concern that marijuana is a gateway drug that can lead teenagers down the road to more serious addictions. The church wanted the Conference to speak out on the issue before the Legislature considers law changes to make recreational use of marijuana legal in the state.

But several delegates said drug laws are already used disproportionately against poor, urban, minority residents, leading to mass incarceration, and said they were concerned that this action could be seen as favoring more criminal penalties for marijuana use. Other delegates said the churches should be focused on the opioid and heroin addiction crisis in the state, not on marijuana.

The final versions of the resolutions will be posted on ctucc.org.

Per Capita Rate Increased To $12 In 2017

In other business, delegates approved increasing the per capita rate churches are asked to pay to the Conference setting from $8 to $10 in 2017. Delegates, however, declined to approve a second increase to $12 in 2018.

Several delegates said that counting members is an old method, and that the Conference needs to look at other ways to raise funds. Some said the increase would be a hardship on their churches. Others, however, pointed out that the rate has not been increased since 2011, while expenses have been on the rise.

Several delegates said it did not make sense to commit to a second increase in 2018, when the Conference is discussing the possibility of merging with the Massachusetts and Rhode Island conferences, which could change how the budget is structured.

For more on the per capita increase, read this letter from the Board of Directors.

Tiffany Vail is the Associate Conference Minister for Communications.