Members of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel in Ellisville, Missouri, recently had an opportunity to live our mission as a “Welcoming Congregation” in the wider community by standing on the side of love during a local nondiscrimination vote. Emerson is a small congregation of about 120 members and one of two UU congregations in St. Louis County. Emerson’s members voted unanimously in May 2011 to apply for Welcoming Congregation status, and the application had been completed and approved by the beginning of last year.
On Tuesday evening, November 27, 2012, the St. Louis County Council planned to vote on Bill 279, which would remedy the exclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity from nondiscrimination protections in employment, housing, and public accommodations. No changes were to be made by the bill other than adding those two groups to those already protected from discrimination. The changes would affect the unincorporated sections of the county, which are home to approximately one-third of the county’s population. The rest of the county’s almost one million residents live in the 90 municipalities in the county, a growing number of which (in addition to the independent City of St. Louis) have already added these protections for LGBTQ citizens. It was clear that the vote would be close. It was also clear that some very vocal opposition planned to come to the Council chambers to speak against Bill 279.
PROMO, Missouri’s LGBTQ advocacy organization, contacted Emerson through our Welcoming Congregation committee–the Diversity Alliance–and asked for help. The LGBTQ community needed people to speak in support of the bill and thank the Council for its work to promote justice and equality for all country residents. Emerson Chapel has a long and cooperative history with PROMO, and we were grateful for this chance to witness to our values. In all, eight members and friends of Emerson Chapel attended the meeting.
The bill obviously excited people’s passions, as 92 people registered to speak in the packed Council chambers. The Council was only obligated to listen to half an hour of testimony, but showed great commitment to letting every voice be heard. Speakers were limited to one minute each. Some did waive their right to speak in the interests of time, but most did not. In the end, the council heard almost two hours of testimony.
Most of those who spoke were vehemently opposed to the bill, many citing religious reasons, and some using language that one Council member described as “intolerance” and “bigotry.” Words like “perverts,” “deviants,” and “bestiality” were thrown around by the bill’s opponents. Scripture was quoted, and more than one person threatened the Council with hellfire and damnation. Many of the bill’s opponents were from Concerned Women for America, a group with the goal of bringing Biblical principles into all levels of public policy. Some other very conservative groups were disproportionately represented as well, including many from the NRA who had latched onto some language in the bill about guns (though that section had already been on the books for approximately 20 years).
Thankfully, a much smaller, but equally passionate group spoke in support of the bill, including (but not limited to) two people associated with the Ethical Society, a couple of people from local Jewish organizations, and at least two who identified themselves as Christians, as well as three people from the Emerson contingent, including our minister Rev. Krista Taves, one of our young adults, and the current coordinator of our Diversity Alliance. Emerson also worked with Missourians for Equality to live-stream the entire meeting, and many other Emersonians watched along, or followed our Facebook updates posted from the Council chambers as we listened to the angry, frightened, hateful language with our hearts racing.
It was an extremely toxic and difficult two hours, but it was all worth it when the Council decided by a vote of 4 to 3 to pass the bill. This was a big victory for LGBTQ equality in our region, and we will continue to work with PROMO as more of the remaining municipalities in the county consider these same protections for LGBTQ residents. We were honored to participate in this historic event. Our work as a Welcoming Congregation doesn’t stop at our doors.
This post was written by Emerson UU Chapel member Lauren Lyerla, who testified at the County Council hearing. Find out more about the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Welcoming Congregation” program here. Is your congregation already certified? Learn how to deepen your welcome here.