One Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) congregation in New England is suing to preserve their supposed religious right to solar energy. The church is arguing that they must be allowed to build solar panels on their historic building, because stopping climate change is “foundational” to their faith, and hence an extension of their “freedom of religion.”
The Historic District Commission in Bedford, Mass., denied First Parish in Bedford a permit to build solar panels on their historic church building. “In response, the congregation filed a complaint on June 27 based on an unusual argument: that the denial violated their congregation’s free exercise of religion, specifically the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as Article II of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights,” wrote Jack Jenkins, Senior Religion Reporter at the progressive think tank Think Progress.
Jenkins noted that the “religious liberty framework of the suit is unusual, as the legal argument is more often used by conservative faith groups such as evangelical Christians, not deeply progressive religious traditions such as the UUA.” He added that “progressive claims to religious liberty” are increasing in frequency.
According to the lawsuit filed by First Parish, the UUA subscribes to Seven Principles. The Seventh Principle calls on Unitarians to “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
“Respect and care for the natural world has been a core tenet of Unitarian and Universalist religious belief since their inception,” the complaint continued. They appealed to the examples of their prominent forbearers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson to prove the importance of “[e]vironmental justice and stewardship” to their faith tradition in past centuries.
The congregation argued that global warming was clearly the “most pressing” modern environmental challenge facing the world. “As such, Unitarian Universalists across the nation believe that their religion necessarily involves taking action on a personal, congregational and community level to confront and mitigate mankind’s role in causing and exacerbating global warming,” they said. Installing solar panels was hence a religious act.
The case is headed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and if solar energy indeed proves to be foundational to the Unitarian Universalist faith, this says much about the progressive core values of the progressive denomination. If their line of argument gains legal standing, one must also wonder whether conservative claims regarding freedom of religion will win greater respect in courts and in the public arena, even when these stands are culturally unpopular and not progressively trendy.