Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year! and Goodbye to All That!

I've been reading lots of 2009 retrospectives today.

On Monday, when I get back to work, I'll plan to post a decade overview.

But for my stalwart readers, I thought I'd quickly recap 2009.

It wasn't a great year for sexual justice. The good news is that our network of religious leaders committed to sexual justice grew past 5000, and the Religious Institute continued to grow in revenues, despite the economic turn down.

But, as I think back over the year, some things stand out:

Men Behaving Badly: Oh, Tiger, Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, Mark Sanford, John Ensign. Nuff said. Can we get through 2010 without a front page sex scandal?

More Men Behaving Badly: Shame on the House and the Senate for caving to the Catholic Bishops and throwing women under the bus on health care reform. Let's send Bart Stupak back to obscurity in 2010.

Men Behaving Timidly: New York and New Jersey, really. Marriage equality is long over due.

Voters Turning Back the Clock: Maine voters, what were you thinking?

Barack Obama: Yes, for ending abstinence only until marriage education programs. Yes, for ending gag rule. But, really, NOTHING on LGBT rights? You PROMISED. We're going to hold you to it in 2010. (But thank you for inviting me to the Christmas party at the White House -- a definite highlight for 2010.)

A year of personal work highlights for me: speaking and/or leading worship in 15 states; serving on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA; creating the Congo Sabbath Initiative for V-Day; meetings at the White House and the United Nations; the UUA becoming the first denomination to pass a sexual health competency for candidates for ministry; a beautiful new web site; entering the world of twitter (follow me @revdebra) and Facebook; and wonderful pastoral moments, including presiding over my first LEGAL same sex marriage ceremony.

Thank you to my loyal readers; I am blessed by my ministry and your support.

Blessings to you for the new year.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Response to Garrision Keill0r: Our Unitarian Universalist Christmas


Dear Mr. Keillor,

I read your article last week on called “Don’t Mess with Christmas.” The sub head said, “It’s a Christian holiday…and it’s plain wrong to rewrite Silent Night. Unitarians, I’m talking to you.”

Now, I have always thought that you, the host of the NPR show Prairie Home Companion, were sort of an adopted Unitarian Universalist, right up there with Poet Mary Oliver. I even know UU ministers who don’t start writing their sermons on Saturday nights until your show is over. I guess, I was wrong.

Your article goes on to say this about a Unitarian Church you visited recently in Boston, “Silent Night has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God.” You conclude, “Christmas is a Christmas holiday – if you’re not in the club, buzz off.”

Oh, Mr. Keillor, there’s so much wrong here, I don’t know where to begin.

You seem to have forgotten that December 25th is an arbitrary date for the birth of Jesus, picked sometime in the 4th century because it was the day of the pagan feast of the unconquered sun, spelled S-U-N, not S-O-N. Those “Christian” symbols of holly and ivy and evergreens and indoor candles you refer to were all part of those pagan solstice rituals. The early church was trying to co-opt this winter holiday to recruit non-believers to Christianity.

You conveniently ignore that even more recently the Christian church didn’t embrace the celebration of Christmas. It was outlawed by English Parliament in the 17th century and by Puritans in America during the 18th. It wasn’t even a recognized l holiday in the United States until 139 years ago.

By targeting Unitarians, you forget that many of the Christmas songs and stories you hold dear were written by Unitarians. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, It Came upon a Midnight Clear, Over the River and Through the Woods, even Jingle Bells. All Unitarian. Oh, and that indoor decorated Christmas tree? Yup, that’s our’s too.

So, Mr. Keillor, we Unitarian Universalists are gathered tonight to celebrate Christmas Eve, to hear the stories of the birth in the manger, the journey of the magi – to light candles and to yes sing Silent Night. Some of us were here earlier to watch the miracle of a children’s Christmas pageant. Some of us are Christian, and we celebrate our cradle faith’s traditions. Some of us, like me, grew up Jewish - - or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or secular – but have joined together in our wonderful liberal religion, finding a new religious and spiritual community.

We’re here, not because we think alike, not because we all believe that Jesus was the Messiah or even if there is a God, but because we love alike -- because we hope alike.

We know that those ancient pagans and those early Christians were on to something. That in the darkest time of the year, we need to bring the light inside, to be together with those we love, to reach out to those who have less than we do -- so that we can all be a little warmer, a little more connected, a little less lonely, a little less fearful.

We may not believe that Jesus is God, but we celebrate what Jesus stood for. Loving your neighbor as yourself. Radical hospitality and radical inclusion of all. Speaking truth to power. Taking care of those who are less fortunate. Working together to heal a broken world.

And we celebrate the birth of this one child as a reminder of the promise of each and every new life. In our church, Mr. Keillor, we teach our children that every child is a special child, that every child reminds us that they are “Emmanuel “ which means the divine is with us. We are reminded that every human life, no matter how humble its beginnings, can indeed bless the world.

See, Mr. Keillor, we believe in the miracles. Maybe not the miracles as they are told in the Bible stories, but in the miracles of our lives together. For some of us who are facing illness or personal tragedy or unemployment or family issues, we may be particularly struck by the miracle that we indeed made it to this night. But the reality for each of us is that tonight is the miracle. The miracles of your family – and mine – and the miracle that we are alive at all. The miracles that happen here, right here, in this community, when we join together. The miracle of this darkened sanctuary on this one night, remembering that in the darkest of winters, in the physical world or in the dark part of our souls, even the tiniest light can with faith become brighter and stronger.

In a few minutes, we will light the candles and join our voices and hearts and sing Silent Night. One tiny light will light another until our whole sanctuary is filled with light once again. We’ll do it as metaphor and for tradition and hope and community and love.
And because, Mr. Keillor, Christmas belongs to all of us who chose to celebrate it. I think your Jesus would have liked it that way.

With blessings for your holiday and New Year,
Rev. Debra Haffner, on behalf of the Unitarian Church in Westport, CT

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Religious Institute Leader Network Now More Than 5000 Strong

We did it!

The Religious Institute has surpassed its 2009 goal of 5000 religious leaders as part of our network.

These religious leaders represent more than 50 faith traditions and come from every state in the country. They are willing to be publicly identified as supporters of sexual health, sexuality education, and sexual justice -- in faith communities and society.

And we know that they represent thousands more ordained clergy, religious leaders, theologians, and senior staff at faith based organizations. We hope to have 10,000 in our network by our 10th anniversary in 2011.

We're launching a network of people of faith in January. YOU can join our Faithful Voices Network and be part of our ministry of sexual health and justice. Stay tuned.

We have so much more to do, but for now, we are celebrating!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Help the Religious Institute Meet Its Goal...18 To Go

I'm just back from a few days of vacation before the holidays begin.

It was an eventful few days to be away from the computer and the office.

I'm celebrating that the mayor of the District of Columbia signed marriage equality legislation late last week. I love that the signing took place at All Soul's, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in D.C. It was a stirring reminder that people of faith support marriage equality.

I'm furious that the Senate approved the Nelson amendment as part of health care reform, again limiting coverage for abortion services beyond current limitations. The Democratic leadership caved for one Senator's support of the overall bill. Once again, women's lives were traded away for votes.

On a more positive note, I came back and found that the Religious Institute leader network has grown to 4982...just 18 short of 5000. That's right, we need only 18 religious leaders (clergy, religious educators, theologians and staff of faith based organizations) to pass 5000 religious leaders who publicly support sexual justice issues.

Can you help us meet our goal by the end of 2009? If you are a religious leader, please go to and do it online. If you are a person of faith, please ask your clergy person or religious educator to do so now.

We've got 10 days to go and 18 people to put us over the top! Can you help?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Secretary Clinton on U.S. Commitment to Global Reproductive Health and Family Planning

Posted by Dr. Kate Ott, Religious Institute Staff

As part of the Rachel Sabbath Initiative, we invite you to join us online in watching Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deliver a major speech on renewed U.S. leadership and commitment to global reproductive health and family planning. On Monday, Dec 21 at 3:00pm EST, the speech will stream live on

The Religious Institute's Rachel Sabbath Initiative: Saving Women's Lives supports the United Nations' Millennium Development Goal 5 through raising awareness in congregations and denominations on how to improve maternal health internationally. Secretary Clinton's speech will commemorate the 15th anniversary of the international Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and will announce the U.S. Government's renewed support for and dedication to reaching the iCPD goals and other related UN agreements including the Millennial Development Goals, by 2015, according to the ICPD planning group.

Together, we can work toward improving and saving women's lives globally!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chanukah 2009

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah. Happy Chanukah! As a Jewish Unitarian Universalist, it is one of the holidays we celebrate in our home.

In case you've forgotten, here is a quick recap of the story (adapted from my blog from two years ago.)

In 167 b.c.e., a Greek leader named Antiochus attempted to institute a Greek state religion. He ordered the takeover of the temple in Jerusalem, had a statute of Zeus built on its altar, and called for ritual sacrifice there and in other Jewish temples throughout the countryside. Mattathias killed the first Jew who came forward to offer a sacrifice as well as a state official, and he and his five sons were forced to escape to the hills. Together, they organized first a small band of rebels to resist Antiochus, which grew to a 6000 person army that retook Jerusalem and the Temple. Three years from the day that Zeus was erected, the 25th of Kislav, Judas Maccabeus and his followers rededicated and purified the Temple in an 8 day celebration. Chanukah has been celebrated more or less continuously for 2,170 years.

Chanukah is the first recorded battle for religious freedom and against efforts to have a minority religion assimilated into a larger whole, reason enough for us to celebrate it in today's world where religious fundamentalists claim that theirs is the only truth.

But the legend of Chanukah also speaks to me. According to a very short passage in the Talmud, the Maccabees came into the temple and after purifying it, went to relight the eternal flame. They only had enough oil for one day. Pressing new oil from the olive trees would take another week. Miraculously the oil lasted for the entire eight days. The Rabbis who wrote the Talmud transformed the telling of the history from a heroic military battle into a story of God’s miracle and grace to the Jewish people. They moved it from a story based on the facts to a story based on the universal need for faith and hope and redemption. It is a truth story, not a true story.

Who among us hasn't needed to find that light within during dark days of the soul?

The need to light the flame in the deep part of winter -- or in the dark part of our lives -- is reflected in Chanukah, in Solstice rituals, in the stories of the journey of the magi. Faith is often part of that journey -- the belief that no matter how dim it seems, that we can count on the light to return. May the Chanukah lights remind us.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Human Rights Day 2009: Uganda's Anti-Gay Proposal

December 10th is Human Rights Day.

There are many things I could write about today. Sexual rights are human rights, and in too many places in the world (and in the United States) they are denied. The right to bodily integrity, the right to live one's sexual orientation and gender identity without fear of discrimination or violence, the right to marry, the right to reproductive health care, the right for adults to make consensual sexual decisions without governmental interference, the right to information...the list is long.

But, the most horrific example for today is the anti-gay bill that is proposed in Uganda. Read it here. It criminalizes same sex sexual behavior, which is punishable by seven years in jail for a first time, unless the person has HIV and then it is punishable by life imprisonment or death. Allies who who "aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality commits an offense and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for seven years. Same sex couples who marry are to be imprisoned for life. A Ugandan citizen living an another country who commits "such offenses" can be extradited for trial.

This proposed law is an unspeakable outrage against humanity, and religious leaders are speaking out. According to GLAAD,

I joined a letter this week of Christian conservative and progressive leaders who sent a letter to Uganda decrying the law's inhumanity. It was signed by a wide ranging coalition of faith leaders, from Catholics to ultraconservative evangelicals to denomination leaders to progressives who regularly speak out for LGBT rights. You can read it and the list of endorsers here.

What can YOU do?

Become educated about what's being proposed. Tell your friends and colleagues. Here are some suggestions from GLAAD's faith program:

  • If you oversee many congregations, email a pastoral letter for human rights day
  • Issue a press release and hold a press conference on Human Rights day
  • Preach a sermon about all of us being created in God’s image;
  • Contact faith leaders in your tradition and other traditions and urge them to write letters and take a public stand.

Join the letter writing campaign to the Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity. Tell him that your faith teaches you that all humans have dignity and worth and that sexual diversity is part of God's blessing. Tell him that it is immoral to violate human rights because of a person's sexual orientation. Tell him that the world is watching.

Here's the address:

Hon. Dr. James Nsaba Buturo

Minister of Ethics and Integrity

Office of the President, Parliamentary Building

P. O. Box 7168

Kampala, Uganda

Let Your Voice Be Heard.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Tell the Senate: No Further Restrictions on Abortion In Health Care Reform

I just can't write another blog this morning on abortion in health care reform. Senators Nelson and Hatch introduced the Senate version of the Stupak amendment, which if passed, will mean that increased abortion restrictions will be part of health care reform if passed. It's likely to be voted on today. As I've written here and on Huffington Post, it puts pro-choice advocates in an impossible position of having to choose between supporting health care reform and access to abortion services.

The Religious Institute joined twelve other religious organizations in sending a letter to the Senate. I'm reprinting it below. I don't think I have anything new to say -- except that if you haven't called your Senator, NOW is the time to do so.

Here's the letter:

The undersigned religious and religiously affiliated organizations urge the Senate to support comprehensive, quality health care reform that maintains the current Senate language on abortion services.

We believe that it is our social and moral obligation to ensure access to high quality comprehensive health care services at every stage in an individual’s life. Reforming the health care system in a way that guarantees affordable and accessible care for all is not simply a good idea—it is necessary for the well-being of all people in our nation.

The passage of meaningful health reform legislation will make significant strides toward accomplishing the important goal of access to health care for all. Unfortunately, the House-passed version of health reform includes language that imposes significant new restrictions on access to abortion services. This provision would result in women losing health coverage they currently have, an unfortunate contradiction to the basic guiding principle of health care reform. Providing affordable, accessible health care to all Americans is a moral imperative that unites Americans of many faith traditions. The selective withdrawal of critical health coverage from women is both a violation of this imperative and a betrayal of the public good.

The use of this legislation to advance new restrictions on abortion services that surpass those in current law will serve only to derail this important bill. The Senate bill is already abortion neutral, an appropriate reflection of the fact that it is intended to serve Americans of many diverse religious and moral views. The bill includes compromise language that maintains current law, prohibiting federal funds from being used to pay for abortion services, while still allowing women the option to use their own private funds to pay for abortion care. American families should have the opportunity to choose health coverage that reflects their own values and medical needs, a principle that should not be sacrificed in service of any political agenda.

We urge the Senate to support meaningful health reform that maintains the compromise language on abortion services currently in the bill.


Catholics for Choice
Disciples Justice Action Center
The Episcopal Church
Jewish Women International
National Council of Jewish Women
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Washington Office
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
The Religious Institute
Union of Reform Judaism
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
United Methodist Church-General Board of Church and Society
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Still a Second-Class Citizen

Rev. Haffner is on the road this week. This guest blog is by Tim Palmer, who leads the Religious Institute's LGBT inclusion initiatives.

Thirty-eight elected officials -- each of them sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the American values of freedom and equality -- went on record today to say that I am second class. That I am not a full citizen of the nation where I was born. That even though I am subject to the same laws and tax codes as any other citizen, I am not entitled to the same rights.

I watched live-stream video from Albany this afternoon as 38 state senators voted down a bill authorizing civil marriage for same-sex couples. They took a roll call vote. Every "no" cut deep.

First came the disappointment. Just minutes before, I'd been captivated and inspired by the testimony of senators urging a yes vote. Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a self-described PK (preacher's kid), said her sister, now a minister, might disagree with her vote, but she was casting it in honor of their brother, a gay man long estranged from both his family and his country.

Several other senators spoke eloquently of their faith and of the Bible's unqualified directive that we work for justice and treat one another with love. Senator Liz Krueger acknowledged that some senators believed their religion compelled them to vote no. She answered that her faith compelled her just as strongly to vote yes.

Disappointment soon turned to anger. I've been writing this blog post in my head all day, each time finding sharper, more stinging words to assail those 38 senators. Only one of them had risen to speak against the bill; the other 37 lacked either the courage or a decent argument. Most probably lacked both.

But, amidst the anger, an image kept coming to mind -- of Jesus standing silently before Pilate, bearing deeper cuts and greater indignities than I will ever know. In the end, justice and love will speak for themselves.

So today we draw a breath, whisper a prayer, and keep the faith.

My partner Eduardo and I got engaged a few months ago. Until today, we held some hope that we might be married here at home. Now it looks like Vermont for us. It won't be a big wedding, but in this economy, I'm guessing the Vermont innkeepers, the Vermont florist, the Vermont caterers, the Vermont musicians and the Vermont restaurateurs will be glad for the income.

There is at least some justice in that.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

World AIDS Day -- We Remember

It's World AIDS Day.

And we remember.

We remember the 25 million people who have died of AIDS since the epidemic began.

We remember that there are more than 33 million people in the world who are living with HIV now.

We remember that each year, nearly 3 million people are newly infected with HIV in the world.

We remember that almost every one of those new cases could have been been prevented.

We remember that the United States took too long to respond to the epidemic, and that U.S. policies privileging abstinence over condoms and safer sex education still put people around the world at risk.

I remember my friends and colleagues who died way too young -- Bill, Danny, Billy, Stuart, Lacey, Marjorie, Damien, Michael. You have your list too.

And we remember those who insisted on a sane, compassionate, realistic response to the epidemic: to my brave colleagues in Act Up, local health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, the WHO. Those who continue to work to make sure we do not forget and we do not give up working for prevention and services for people living with AIDS and adequate medications and education for everyone.

We remember -- with love and a conviction that there is still so much more work we must do.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Keep Awake This Holiday Season

I preached yesterday about Advent and its messages. Although UU's don't follow the lectionary, I'm always interested in seeing which texts my Christian colleagues are using. I found yesterday's Mark text ominous, but I liked the ending: "keep awake."

Keep awake is an important message as we go through the next four very busy weeks. I encouraged my congregants to let go of the "should's" this holiday season but instead only do the activities that feed their soul.

Here's an excerpt:

Make a promise to yourself to live intentionally during these next four weeks. To let go of the activities on your to do list that don’t feed your soul, and to do the ones that do. If you don’t like writing holiday cards or baking hundreds of cookies, don’t, even if that’s what you have always done. Decide if you love seeing “The Nutcracker” or if this is the year, you’ll finally stop going. Watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “White Christmas” with your family because you can’t wait to see them again, or take the afternoon to read a book. If you enjoy the mall, go. If you don’t, shop online or don’t shop at all. Eat the wonderful foods that you enjoy, but skip the fruitcake. Each of us only has a finite number of December seasons left. Keep awake.

May it be so.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Thanksgiving Valentine

I'm taking a break from all things political, starting this evening. I hope you will too.

Thanksgiving to me is a religious holiday, a spiritual holiday. There is nothing more sacred than giving thanks. Meister Eckhardt, 800 years ago, said that the only prayer we ever real need is "thank you."

And I am so grateful for all my blessings.

I am grateful for my family. And I am so thankful that we will all be together over the next few days.

I am grateful for the chosen family of my heart, those who live near me and those who live far away. You know who you are.

I am grateful for my wonderful colleagues at the Religious Institute and the Christian Community. Kate, Tim, Kayla, Amanda, and Steve, thank you for all you do and all you are.

I am grateful to all who support our work at the Religious Institute.

I am grateful for health -- mine and the health of those I love most in the world.

I am grateful for ministry and the opportunity to serve in the world.

I am grateful to you, my regular readers.

I am grateful for work, education, housing, health care and food -- and acutely aware of how privileged I am to have all of them in a world where so many don't.

I am so blessed and so thankful.

I hope you will take time tomorrow and through the weekend to reflect on all that is good in your life...and to whisper the prayer, "thank you."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Religious Institute Condemns "Manhattan Declaration" As Unjust and Not Faithful

This morning the Religious Institute released the following statement in response to the Manhattan Declaration, a statement endorsed by Catholic Bishops and Religious Right Leaders Opposing Abortion and LGBT rights.

The Manhattan Declaration, endorsed by those who are most conservative in America's religious life, is once again a political call against women’s moral agency and the rights of lesbian and gay persons dressed up in religious language. These religious leaders would have us believe that they would be forced to provide abortions or bless same sex marriages against their religious principles when these rights are available. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Religious leaders across the spectrum support religious freedom, the right of each religion to determine its own rites and practices, and freedom of the pulpit. Mainstream and progressive religious leaders differ though in our belief that no single religious voice can speak for all faith traditions on abortion or LGBT equality, nor should government take sides on religious differences. We oppose any attempt to make specific religious doctrine concerning the rights of women and LGBT persons the law for all Americans.

Ten years ago, a multifaith group of religious leaders issued the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, a 500-word call for sexual justice that affirmed full inclusion of women and LGBT persons and a faith based commitment to reproductive rights. Today, the Religious Declaration has been endorsed by more than 3,300 religious leaders, including denomination and seminary presidents, from more than 50 faith traditions. Its positions on reproductive justice and LGBT equality reflect the majority opinions of American citizens, faithful and secular alike. Neither the Manhattan Declaration, nor the handful of Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders who created it, speak for most Christians, much less people of other faiths.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thoughts about Abortion and Health Care Reform After a Day in the Senate

I spent yesterday at the U.S. Senate with more than 100 advocates for reproductive health and health care reform. We heard from Senators Boxer, Dodd, Murray, and others about how the Senate would likely address the Stupak restrictions placed on the House health care bill. It was exciting to see many of the heroes of the reproductive justice movement in one place, and even more exciting to be with a large number of young women who are organizing in their communities.

The Senate health care bill was finally released last night, and it doesn't include any further restrictions on coverage for abortion -- as the President promised. But, let's not forget that neither did the House bill until two weeks ago.

So, now it's your turn. On December 2nd, there will be a national day of action at the U.S. Senate to assure that health care reform is not passed at the expense of women's reproductive rights. You can find out more here.

But, we are also asking you to get your congregations involved. We've posted a "toolkit", jointly developed by many faith-based organizations, on the Stupak amendment at our website. We're happy to be one of the contributors, and hope you'll check it out.

From my perspective, as those of you who have been reading my blogs on health care reform for months know, is that low income women should have access to abortion services as a covered medical service. I want to see the Hyde amendment repealed; yesterday, Senator Boxer promised she would soon introduce such a bill. But, because of my commitment to health care reform, I, like many other pro-choice people, are willing to agree to support health care reform that just doesn't take rights or services away from women who currently have them.

We should ask for and accept nothing less.

I hope you'll get involved.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Abortion and Health Care Reform: What Would Solomon Do?

From my Huffington Post article yesterday:

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God grants King Solomon "a wise and discerning mind," so that he would have "discernment in dispensing justice." (1 Kings 3:16-28)

What follows from there is a complex story of two women, mothers of two similarly aged boy children, one of whom has died in the middle of the night. One of the women says her son is alive, and that the other has tricked her by placing the dead child in her arms. The other woman says, "No, the live one is my son, and the dead one is yours." They argue incessantly before the king.

Solomon steps forward and asks for a sword. To find the true mother, he exclaims, "Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other." The real mother, "overcome with compassion for her son," reveals herself by saying, "Give her the child; only don't kill it." The other, revealing her deception, says, "Cut it in two."

I fear that those of us who support health care reform and reproductive justice for women are being put in the position of the real mother. We know that millions of Americans will benefit from health care reform, but we are being asked by some to sacrifice our own rights in order for a reform bill to pass. Surely that is the position many House Democrats found themselves in last week......

To read the rest, go to

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Religious Leaders Speak Out Against Stupak

The Religious Institute, along with Catholics for Choice, Planned Parenthood's Clergy Network, and RCRC, released this joint statement yesterday on the passage of the Stupak Amendment in the health care reform bill. It's also available at our web site, Please help us get the word out! And contact your Senator and the White House to ask that it NOT be included in the final bill. We cannot let women's health care be compromised this way.


Catholics for Choice, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Clergy Network, the Religious Coalition on Reproductive Choice, and the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing represent more than ten thousand religious leaders and tens of thousands of people of faith who believe that abortion must be safe, legal, and accessible. We come together to condemn the passage of the Stupak amendment which, if passed by the Senate, will effectively deny coverage for abortion services to women covered by the new federal health care plan. We are appalled that religious leaders intervened to impose their specific religious doctrine into health care reform, not recognizing that women must have the right to apply or reject the principles of their own faith in making the decision as to whether or not abortion is appropriate in their specific circumstances. Further, we decry those who sought to use abortion as a way to scuttle much-needed health care reform. We call on the President and the United States Senate to ensure that the final bill that passes does not include any specific prohibition on the use of federal funds for reproductive health care services. We pray for a renewed commitment to relational and reproductive justice for all.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Angry But Not Surprised About Stupak

I want to be happy that the House passed its version of Health Care Reform. Really. I believe so strongly about making health care a right not a privilege.

But the House version included a last minute amendment -- the Pitt-Stupak amendment -- which if included in the final law, will basically mean that any insurance company who wants to be part of the federal program will not be able to include abortion as a covered service. If passed, it's the greatest restriction on women's access to abortion since the Hyde Amendment passed more than two decades ago.

I feel betrayed. Betrayed by the 64 Democrats who voted for it. Betrayed by Nancy Pelosi who let it be brought to the floor. Betrayed by those in the pro-choice community who asked too early for us to get behind the Capps amendment which would have continued to deny women who needed abortion coverage in the public option but was 'abortion neutral'. We gave up too much ground too soon. And angry that our pro-choice President was willing to go along with trading the rights of women to get anti-choice legislators to go along with it, despite the fact that not a single Republican actually voted yes on health care reform.

I can't say that I'm surprised. I've been writing for more than the past two years about my concern about religious leaders who call themselves progressive but don't support LGBT rights or the rights of women to make their own decisions about their pregnancies. I've continually called for sexual justice to be an integral part of a progressive religious agenda. I've been asked far too many times to stop raising these issues, to recognize that they are divisive to a common ground agenda, that reaching out to Catholics and evangelical leaders is more important than working for justice to LGBT persons and women. I can't count how many times I've written here -- and in other articles -- that women's and LGBT's lives shouldn't be traded for political gains.

Some of those so-called progressive folks helped deliver health care reform in the House -- but they did it at the expense of hundreds of thousands of women who will now have even a more difficult time accessing safe abortion services. Removing abortion from covered insurance plans won't keep women from having abortions -- it will just mean that they happen later in pregnancies as women struggle to find the money to pay for them -- or they will resort once again to unsafe procedures.

The bottom line: women's lives got buried under common ground on Saturday night. And to those who said the religious right was dead, I wish it felt better to say, "I told you so."

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Abortion and Marriage Equality: I'm Not Ready To Make Nice

Since yesterday morning when I read about Maine, Virginia, and New Jersey, I've kept hearing this lyric from the Dixie Chicks song in my head:

I'm not ready to make nice
I'm not ready to back down

I'm still mad as hell and
I don't have time to go round and round and round

It got louder when I read a piece in the New York Times about the Democratic leadership appearing to be ready to agree that health care reform will assure that any "public option is a pro-life option."

It is profoundly unjust when the private moral choices of women and lesbian and gay couples are subject to majority vote and political trading. There can be no common ground when votes are allowed to strip people of their existing rights.

Imagine if people could have voted to overturn civil rights legislation in their states in the 1960's. Imagine if slavery had been put up for referendum in the south. Imagine allowing politicians to decide if organ transplants or do not resuscitate orders could be available for your loved ones. Marriage equality -- or any recognition of the civil rights of a minority group -- should not be eligible for public referendum.

Even victories like in Washington State feel hollow when they are based on "separate but equal."

We can not cede people's rights or lives to common ground. As people of faith committed to sexual justice, we must speak only for the higher ground. People's lives are at stake. Join US.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- 2009 Election Results

Election Day 2009 is over. The results for advocates for sexual justice were very mixed.

The Good: Voters in Washington State affirmed the rights of same sex couples to "everything but" marriage. In Kalamazoo, voters affirmed a gay rights ordinance. Several openly gay candidates were elected to mayoral positions, several in the south. And the ugly Congressional contest in upstate New York resulted in a pro-choice Democrat being elected.

The Bad: Anti-choice candidates defeated pro-choice candidates for Governor in New Jersey and Virgina. This does not bode well for women and girls in those states. One possible silver lining would be if Governor Corzine decides to push for marriage equality in his last months in office.

The Ugly: My heart hurt as I learned about Maine earlier this morning. It's so hard to believe that a majority of Maine voters voted to take the right of marriage AWAY from gay and lesbian people, after it had been approved by the state legislator. I just can't understand how Americans could go and vote for HURTING people's ability to have their commitments recognized, their children to grow up in legal families, and their legal rights to health care, survivor benefits, health insurance, and so on stripped. My heart goes out to my good friends who live in Maine who's rights were trampled on yesterday.

Many of us pray each day, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." It's going to take a few days to forgive voters in some of these states.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Vote on Election Day -- Especially in ME, WA, NJ, & VA

I love Election Day. I love going to the polls, going into the private voting booth, and even the earnest bake sales afterwards. I proudly wear my "I voted" button for weeks after Election Day.

Tomorrow is local election time in Connecticut, and the outcomes are just about certain. Still, I plan to be there.

But, some of you live in states where the outcomes for sexual justice will really matter, and I hope you will for sure go out and vote.

In New Jersey and Virginia, voters have a clear choice between pro-choice and anti-choice candidates for Governors. Those votes will have a large impact on whether women in those states will have access to safe abortions without unnecessary or harmful restrictions.

Voters in Maine and Washington State will either affirm or deny the rights of lesbian and gay people to marriage (Maine) or domestic partnership (Washington), rights already conferred by state legislatures. Pro-marriage equality religious leaders have been active in both states. Let's all pray that there won't be a repeat of Prop 8.

If you don't live in one of those states, I'm guessing you have friends who do. Please consider using Facebook or email to remind them how important their vote will be. And all of us can pray for justice. I know I am.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

History In The Making: President Signs Matthew Shepard Act

Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered because he was gay more than 11 years ago.

Today, President Obama will sign legislation in his name. According to the AP, the measure expands current law to include crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It took 14 tries to get this fully inclusive legislation passed. 14 tries.

This is hardly brave legislation, in that on almost all polls, more than 75% of Americans support hate crimes legislation that protects LGBT people. But, it is the first piece of national civil rights legislation that includes protections on gender and gender identity, and should be celebrated. I'd like to think that other legislation (repealing DOMA, repealing DADT for starters) will follow soon.

I'm hoping that Judy Shepard will be at the White House this afternoon. I imagine that her heart will both be glad that such legislation finally exists...but that her grief for her son will also feel overwhelming. I can't help but think of Scripture -- he died, so others shall live. My prayers will be with her and all the other parents who've lost their children to hate crimes.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Thinking About Sexology?

I'm just back from the fall meeting of the board of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. We began the meeting at a reception at the home of the Chair of the Widener University sexuality masters and doctoral program, where we shared how each of us had been inspired to become a sexologist.

I don't think I've written about that here, and thought I'd share a piece of that story. I also thought some of my regular readers might be interested in how to become a sex educator or therapist, and I encourage you to visit the AASECT web site. I also hope that some of you may be interested in the outstanding education that Widener offers to people who want to go into this field.

AASECT played a major role in my decision to become a sexuality educator, and even today, my association with its outstanding members and its annual conference and newsletter informs my ministry. I'm proud to be an AASECT certified sex educator.

But going back...I was very involved in the women's movement at college, and became involved in the women's health movement. I was trained to teach women about their bodies and reproductive health, including what we called "self-help", or self pelvic exam. My roommate (now incidentally also a minister) and I were trained by women associated with the Boston Women's Health Collective to give lectures and slide shows at college campuses. It was an exciting opportunity to empower women to understand more about their bodies -- and their sexuality.

I didn't think it had anything to do with a career. I was on my way to law school, via an internship in the U.S. Congress. I needed three additional credits to complete my degree in three years, and stumbled by accident on a one week intensive course called "The New Sex Education" at American University -- yes, co-sponsored by AASECT.

I took the course, and my mid-week, I was certain that THIS was what I was supposed to do in the world, not law. And as one can only do early in one's adult life, I quit my job that following Monday to start working in the reproductive health field and begin my training as a sexuality educator. I now understand that as my first call. I'm glad I listened.

Today, if you're interested in becoming a sexologist, the path is a little clearer. Interested? Check out AASECT and Widener. And if you are experiencing sexuality issues or want more education, check out the state by state listing of certified educators and counselors at

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Working Together: International Religious and Sexual and Reproductive Health Organizations

Last week, the Religious Institute in collaboration with the Population Council convened its first international colloquium of religious leaders and sexual and reproductive health professionals to develop new collaborative ventures. More than 25 international organizations sent representatives, who came from as far away as Kenya and Geneva.

It was a great meeting, and set the foundation for our new international initiative to increase religious support for international family planning and reproductive health programs. You'll be hearing more about that in the coming months here.

I offered one of the introductory comments, and thought I'd share with you some of my recommendations for religious leaders on how to engage these issues and for sexual and reproductive health organizations on how to reach out to faith leaders.

*Religious leaders, we must break the silence about sexuality in our faith communities. We must preach about these issues, provide sexuality education for children, youth, and adults, offer adult forums, integrate sexual justice into our social action programs...

*SRH colleagues, approach faith based leaders for their moral authority and influence, for advice on values based approaches, in appreciation of their leadership, and influence on people of faith, not just as service providers or people who can deliver your message.

*Be willing to start where the faith community IS, not where you would like them to be. Work on AIDS can begin with working on care, on sexuality education could begin with educating parents or sexual abuse prevention, for family planning it could be maternal mortality or violence against women. Seek to develop relationships and partnerships first. Patience IS a virtue.

*Don’t write religious leaders off because of their tradition. In Pakistan, muslim clerics are distributing contraceptives. In Iran, there have been religious rulings that reassure couples that using contraception is consistent with their faith traditions. In Thailand, Buddhist values were incorporated into the national family planning room. In some areas, priests and imams may be your best allies, and leaders from Protestant traditions may not. It is important to identify key faith leaders who support you, and then ask them to introduce you to others. Have faith leaders speak to faith leaders, not public health professionals who don’t know the faith well.

*Make it easy for religious leaders to be involved. Ask for their help in developing materials. Our Congo Sabbath went more easily once we had materials that could be used in worship, as handouts, as adult education sessions. Offer training on sexuality issues. But, a note of caution: let religious leaders be religious leaders. Don’t try to “message them” with public health messages, don’t ask them to become your business partners.

We all need to remember that yes, sexual and reproductive health are public health issues, but they are moral issues as well. Our commitment to the dignity and worth of all people commands us to work for women’s equality and flourishing. Our theological commitment to truth telling calls us to oppose abstinence-only-until-marriage education. Our understanding that it is because life is so precious, we must do everything possible to make sure it is not created carelessly and that means we must support contraception and sex education. Our commitment to the moral agency of women means we must articulate that abortion is always a moral decision and that every woman, regardless of where she lives, must have the right to make that decision safely and legally. We must end the violence against women’s bodies and also their lives, including preventing unnecessary death. Our commitment to the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, and the poor means that we must work to assure that all people have yes access to family planning and reproductive health services but also the right to make responsible and healthy and pleasurable sexual decisions.

May it be so.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Call for Shared Ministry

On Sunday, I offered the "Charge to the Congregation" at the instillation of my colleague and friend, Rev. David Bryce, as the senior minister at The First Church in Belmont, MA. Although the words were in some way specific to this Unitarian Universalist community, in others, I think they apply to all of us who are members of faith communities.

I decided to share part of them here.

“Shared ministry” has perhaps become such a buzz word in our congregations that it is a cliché. But it is true: we make community together; we care for each other together. Surely you have learned during your years of having an interim minister, how important it is that you are there for each other. You and David are partners in this shared journey.

I urge you to remember the core principles of Buddhism that I have heard summed up this way: Show up. Speak the Truth. Do What You Do With Enthusiasm. Don’t Get Attached to the Outcome. The last is often the hardest for many of us. Remember that none of us is as smart as all of us are together, and that sometimes what we most want as individuals, may not be what is best for the community as a whole. Believe in the democratic process. Work together not for common ground, but as I often say in my own ministry, for the common good, indeed for the higher ground. William Sloane Coffin, the great 20th century minister, said, “Human unity is not something we are called to create, but only to recognize it and then make it manifest.”

Know that ultimately you – each of you, alone and together -- are responsible for the well being of this church community, and for it being a prophetic voice in the world. Practice radical hospitality – seek out the newcomer, be inclusive of all people, work to becoming a multicultural community, be a sexually healthy faith community, assure the safety and care of all who enter your doors.

Be a beacon to the world. Think about how you can take the “good news” of Unitarian Universalism out into the world -- into the community of Belmont, but also to serve the needs of the most marginalized in surrounding areas. Speak out for social justice in your town, in your state, and in the nation. In the words of the UUA’s latest theme, stand on the side of love.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Contraception and Legal Abortions Save Women's Lives Globally: Speak Out

Yesterday, I was at a meeting of the United Nations Foundation. The Religious Institute is a new grantee of the UN Foundation and will be developing a new initiative to engage U.S. religious leaders and people of faith in advocating for international sexual and reproductive health.

I was inspired by the other grantees' projects and commitments.

I was reminded again this morning why this work is so important. The Guttmacher Institute has published a new study, "Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Progress." Read it here at

In brief, the study found that global contraceptive use is contributing to a significant decrease in the number of unintended pregnancies, and thus a decline in the number of abortions. The unintended pregnancy rate declined from 69 per 1000 in 1995 to 55 per 1000 in 2008. That's still too high, but provides clear evidence that there must be more U.S. and global support for family planning programs. And not surprisingly, Guttmacher found evidence that abortion rates fall when unintended pregnancies go down.

It's a wonder, then, that anti-abortion groups aren't working FOR contraception rather than against it.

But more, they need to know that making abortion illegal or having it highly restricted does NOT decrease the number of abortions. In a somewhat surprising funding, Guttmacher discovered that abortion occurs at roughly equal rates regardless of its legal status.

There is a difference, though: where abortion is illegal, women die. To be more precise, an estimated 70,000 women DIE each year from unsafe abortions, and an additional five million experience serious medical effects.

EVERY ONE OF THOSE 70,000 WOMEN'S DEATH IS PREVENTABLE through safe and legal abortion services and high quality, post-abortion medical care.

I don't see how any anti-abortion advocate could dare to use the term "pro-life" in the face of these statistics.

Outraged? Get involved. If you are a religious leader, endorse our Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion As A Moral Decision. If you are a person of faith, join our newsletter list to find out more about the plans we have for an "International Women's Health Sabbath" later this fall. Write the White House and Congress about your support for international family planning. Speak out.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Thank You, Union, for My Unitas Award

Last week, I was honored by Union Theological Seminary with the UNITAS award, the seminary's highest alumni honor. I was recognized along with Rev. Dr. George Webber, class of '48, Dr. Phyllis Trible, '63, Dr. Larry L. Rasmussen, '70, Bishop Mark S. Hanson, '72, and Rev. Dr. John W. Kinney, '79. (If you don't know these people, they are inspiring, and you can read their biographies at

I was deeply honored and moved to accept the award in their company. It was a beautiful, emotional and stirring ceremony. I had the great privilege of being introduced by my colleague and friend, Rev. Dr. Marvin Ellison.

As the newest of the graduates, I was introduced last. I was so moved by the speeches of the other honorees that by the time it was my turn, I was pretty nervous. I asked, actually implored God to be with me as I rose, my heart beating wildly.

My remarks are too long to post here, but perhaps I'll post them at our web site. I concluded this way, after naming the other honorees.

"We have each had very different paths since we left Union, but each us of has ministries in the world fueled by our passions. Each of us in our own way learned that it is worth the risk and the doubt and the uncertainty to do what your heart tells you to do and to accept the call God has offered: in the words of Rabbi Nachman, 'to use my life to the fullest, to become the person, I am meant to be.' Union helped me become that person, that minister."

And I am deeply grateful.

Here's what the citation said, in case you are interested:

"Debra W. Haffner. Minister, sexologist, writer, social activist, mother, and founding director of the Religious Institute; for her passionate insistence that faith communities promote healthy, responsible and pleasurable sexuality; and for her fearless celebration of love that is just and whole."

I will treasure my memories of Friday and this honor for the rest of my life. And like President Obama's award last week, I will seek to honor it with my actions and life in the future.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

To Anti-Choice Religious Leaders: What Happened to Truth Telling?

To the Christian Post, LifeNews.Com, California Catholic Daily, and those tons of smaller anti-abortion bloggers:

I understand that people of faith disagree about abortion. I understand that you would like abortion to be illegal once again and unavailable in all circumstances.

We've been on other sides of this issue for a long time.

I understand, then, why you were upset that more than 1,100 clergy and religious leaders endorsed the Religious Institute's Open Letter on Abortion as a Moral Decision.

And that you didn't like that we sent that out through Religion News Service and to members of the Senate, calling for them not to add further restrictions on women's access to abortion in health care reform.

What I don't understand, though, is why you distorted our press release and claimed that we were asking for taxpayer-funded abortions in the health care reform bill, rather than that existing plans that cover abortion services be allowed to continue to do so.

Moreover, you distorted our press release to say that denominations had endorsed the Open Letter, when it can only be endorsed by individual clergy, acting out of their personal faith commitments. Perhaps you wanted to create issues in denominations that have their own fault lines over choice?

And the words you use to describe the Religious Institute -- a "so called" organization "claiming to represent" more than 4900 clergy and other religious leaders are designed to disparage our leadership and organization. I invite you to learn more about our very real organization and the efforts we support.

The health care reform debate has been marred enough by the egregious lying of those who oppose it, from made-up death panels to using women's reproductive health access as a pawn to make it more divisive. Surely you don't have to lie to find something to disagree with us about.

I call you to our shared Scriptural commitment to truth telling. You do remember those passages, don't you?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Why Welcome Isn't Enough: The Story of the Part Time Flag

I had a lovely time preaching at a church near Cape Cod yesterday. It was one of those New England early churches, with built in pews, towering organ, and high wood pulpit. A rainbow flag hung over the front door.

I preached an updated version of what I think of as my "travel sermon" on sexual morality, justice, and healing, and I was warmly received by the parishioners, many of whom were quite senior. One of my favorite moments in the service was when an older gentleman in the choir, in coat and tie, sang the line "We are gay and straight together" as a solo during the Holly Near anthem, "We are a gentle, angry people."

After the service, I did a workshop with church leaders about how to be a sexually healthy and responsible congregation. The church had completed the process and voted this spring to be a welcoming congregation. I congratulated them for their work and for the flag announcing it to those passing by the town green.

They reported to me that it only flies some times -- that they had reached a community agreement to only fly it periodically.

I asked why.

There were many answers. It's a historic district. It's too much to fly it all the time. People don't want us to be known as a gay church.

To be honest, I was stunned. I asked them what message they thought they were giving LGBT people by sometimes having the flag up, sometimes not. I told them if it was me, I'd probably think that some weeks I was more welcome than others - or maybe not welcome some Sundays at all.

I've been thinking a lot about this since yesterday. There is what a colleague calls a "heart lag" on these issues. Jet lag is when our bodies haven't caught up to the new time zone. Heart lag is when our innermost feelings have not caught up to our intellectual understanding. Most people know in their heads that it is wrong to discriminate against LGBT persons and that they are called to full inclusion. It's just that their hearts haven't totally caught up. They are on a journey, and over time, I pray that they will get there.

The Religious Institute's new online guide, Acting Out Loud, is designed to help congregations move from welcome to full inclusion. I hope you'll check it out.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Is It The Beginning of the End of DADT?

The Boston Globe reports that a top military journal is about to publish a research article that concludes that there is no justification for the "don't ask, don't tell"(DADT) policy. Read the article here.

The writer reportedly concludes that the policy is hurting the military when it must dismiss qualified personnel and hurts the people who remain closeted in order to serve.

It's about time.

I have gay and lesbian friends in the military who have had to go to extraordinary lengths to hide their orientation in order to serve. I don't feel at liberty to share their stories, except to say that I have asked out loud why they haven't just quit, rather than deny their personal lives.

The President had discussed the injustice of the DADT policy during the campaign, but the hope that he might lift it by executive order was dashed. This article should help provide backbone to the military, Congress, and the White House to get rid of this sad legacy signed by Bill Clinton.

Let's pray that the end of DADT is close.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Abortion and Health Care Reform

I just knew we were going to get to this place in the health care reform debate.

Today's New York Times has a front page article on increasing efforts in Congress to remove any provisions for coverage of abortion services in health care reform. Pro-choice legislators had already agreed that abortion would NOT be in the public option (thereby once again making sure that low-income women and federal employees would not have subsidized reproductive health services), but that women who had private plans that covered such services would not lose them.

But even that's not enough for those who would really prefer to make abortion illegal but will settle for making it impossible to get.

And I'm worried that the President is going to go along with this, backing down from his commitments to be a pro-choice President. It's not enough to assure that abortion is safe, legal and rare: it also must be accessible, and that means coverage in health care.

More than a thousand religious leaders have endorsed our Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision. This isn't just a public health issue; it's about assuring that women's moral agency to make their own decisions about childbearing is supported.

President Obama, please don't let us down.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

ARTs: Raising Issues of Accountability and Equality

Today's post is by Dr. Kate Ott, Associate Director of the Religious Institute.

Since the advent of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) 30 years ago, millions have used them to try to have children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in eight American women of childbearing age has used a fertility service of some kind. The development and use of these technologies have outpaced ethical reflection and critical social engagement on issues of regulation, equal access, and health risk.

ARTs are not new, yet their use remains largely unregulated. Fertility clinics currently self-regulate through membership in the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). But, the Centers for Disease Control report that 8 in 10 clinics do not strictly follow ASRM guidelines. With regard to IVF, for example, implanting multiple embryos increases the risks to both mother and children when multiple births occur. Clinics practice multiple implantation often at patient’s request to maximize chances of implantation when costs per cycle are excessive. This practice continues even though current research suggests there is no benefit to implanting more than two embryos. Like IVF, the long-term health implications of some reproductive procedures are still unknown, there is a need for continuing research to determine future risks, and for caution in the use of ARTs that are high risk and low success.

The high financial cost of ARTs creates a class system of those with means and those without. The lack of government regulations and the sporadic, often biased insurance coverage of ARTs compound issues of access. Many insurance companies, fertility clinics, and state laws limit access to ARTs based on marital status, sexual orientation, and socio-economic standing. Granted not all ARTs are the same; they vary in their cost and medical risk. The availability of safe, effective, affordable reproductive technologies must respect the diversity of families in our culture, and not exclude women and men on the basis of partner status, economic circumstance or sexual orientation.

As the Religious Institute stated in the Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Assisted Reproductive Technologies, calls for increased regulation can best address disparities in ART practice if they “promote research to determine the risk of ARTs and raise questions about the use of resources for ARTs that are high risk and low success.” In addition, insurance coverage “for effective and safe ARTs should respect the diversity of family structure and not exclude on the basis of partner status, economic circumstances, or sexual orientation.”

There is a vital role for faith leaders to play in creating intentional dialogue about the effectiveness and safety of ARTs, the relative lack of regulation, and the moral dimensions of their use. We must commit to an ongoing conversation that respects the desire for biological children while honoring reproductive justice. Faith communities can take the lead in this conversation by promoting values that can guide moral and ethical decision-making on the use of ARTs. It is time we raise up our theologies and histories that value nontraditional family structures, uphold the dignity and diversity of human beings, articulate a principle of communal responsibility, and witness against social injustices that perpetuate inequalities based on race, gender, economic class, sexual orientation, age, and ability.

Portions of this blog are taken from A Time to Be Born, available for download at

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Time to Be Born: Announcing Our Newest Publication

On Monday, the Today show featured a news story about a couple in the Midwest who had someone else's frozen embryo implanted into the women's uterus by mistake, but who chose to continue the pregnancy to term. When the baby is born, he will go to the biological parents of the embryo.

It's complicated to know the right language to even tell you that story. You may have had to read it twice to understand who is who.

I can only imagine how difficult it would be to be either of these couples' minister and provide pastoral care to them through these months and the years to come.

This is just one possible, complicated outcome of the burgeoning world of assisted reproductive technologies. As our Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Assisted Reproductive Technologies states, "fundamental questions of values and ethics are raised by expanding understandings of science and the development of technologies unimagined by earlier generations." Further, "there is a need for increased regulation to safeguard health, research to determine the risks...and caution...on ARTS that are high risk and low success."

It's complicated.

That's why I am so happy to tell you about the Religious Institute's latest publication, A Time to Be Born. It's available for download as a pdf on our web site. It includes information about ARTs, what Scripture and tradition say about infertility and childbearing, ethical issues and pastoral counseling, as well as lists of resources for more information. We're proud to be publishing the country's first multifaith resource for religious professionals on this emerging topic.

On Thursday, my colleague, Dr. Kate Ott, who directed the development of the new guide, will be blogging here about the ethical issues raised by ARTs. Be sure to stop by.

Friday, September 18, 2009

La Shana Tova -- My Prayer for Rosh Hashana

The Days of Awe begin with us tonight.

May the next ten days be days of reflection, introspection, and peace.

May we prepare ourselves for the changes in the year to come.

May it be a good year.

May it be a healthy year.

May it be a year of peace for all of us, all around the globe.

May it be a year of peace within ourselves.

May we live our lives with integrity, service, and love.

May we be blessed with the strength of this community, of our families, of our friends.

May we remember what it truly important in life and may we remember to be grateful every day.

May we all be inscribed another year in the Book of Life.

La Shanah Tovah!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Training Women Ministers in the South

Last week, Kate Ott and I had the privilege of leading a one-day training workshop for women ministers in the South. They came from Georgia, Texas, Alabama and South Carolina.

Most had grown up Southern Baptist; most are Cooperative Baptists now. Most had grown up being told that women should be ladylike and couldn't be ministers. In their own way, most have challenged that ideology and have important roles in their faith communities. Most had had abstinence-only-until-marriage programs as youth, and few had had sexuality education in seminary.

We offered them a seven-hour version of our seminary course, "Sexuality Issues for Ministers." We moved pretty quickly through personal reflections of sexual messages growing up, the five components of sexuality, sexual identity, sexual orientation, human sexual response, American sexual behavior -- and that was before lunch. After lunch, we addressed counseling issues, sexual attraction in ministry, Scripture and theology, and ended up with worship and adult education.

It was a fascinating, eye-opening experience for them as participants and for us as leaders. They were open, vulnerable, honest and eager for information. They talked openly about their difficulties as women in the church -- and their frustrations about what that means in a system that still primarily has only men as senior ministers and that teaches celibacy except in marriage. They shared the difficulties of having learned a message that "sex is dirty, save it for marriage." They want to do better with the young people in their congregations, and in private conversations, I learned many want to have sexuality be a more positive part of their lives.

Once again, we learned how important sexuality training for ministers is...and how important good education is for young people. I'm grateful to them all.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Caster Semenya -- A Teachable Moment on Intersexuals

I didn’t know her name until last week. My regularly readers know I don’t follow sports regularly, and I had missed the news that in August, Caster Semenya, a teenage runner from South Africa, had become the 800-meter world champion.

We know her name now, because an Australian newspaper leaked the results of complex genetic and physical tests that allege that Ms. Semenya does not have ovaries or a uterus, but internal testes androgen insensitivity syndrome. The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) says it is considering the results and will decide if she can compete as a woman in the future.

I don’t know enough about sports to have a reasoned opinion about how intersex people might participate in a world of “women sports” and “men sports.” I do know, though, that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, and I find most of the media treatment woefully ignorant about people who have what the American Pediatrics Association has named “disorders of sexual development.” I've cringed every time I've read the now-discredited term “hermaphrodite” to describe her.

This could be a teachable moment in our congregations and in our homes. As many as one in 1,500 babies is born with external genitals not easily identifiable as male or female, and many more people find out at puberty or later that they do not have organs, chromosomes or hormones that neatly fit into male or female definitions of biological sex. As the Religious Institute’s Open Letter on Sexual and Gender Diversity says, “binary thinking fails to reflect the full diversity of human experience and the richness of creation.”

Does your congregation have the resources it needs to welcome and support an intersex child or adult? If you are a religious leader, are you prepared to support families and individuals with these conditions? Do you know what resources are available? The Religious Institute’s new online guide, Acting Out Loud, can help you educate yourself and your communities about the diversities of human sexualities, including diversity of biological sex.

There is nothing new about biological sexual difference, nor about our call to understand sexual and gender diversity as a blessed part of our lives. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus embraces the eunuchs “who have been so since birth” (Matthew 19:12). The prophet Isaiah promises they will be blessed with “an everlasting name” (Isaiah 56:4-5).

May Ms. Semenya – and the millions of intersex people around the world -- receive that same embrace and blessing.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Just Say Know: New Guide for Religious Leaders on Sexuality Education

Millions of young people started back to school today, including my 11th grader.

I'm hoping that most of them were able to listen to President Obama's speech.

The President steered clear of anything that might be controversial today, but I'm proud of his long standing commitment to comprehensive sexuality education and his administration's decision to end the abstinence-only-until-marriage program.

That doesn't mean, though, that community controversies about sexuality education will go away this year. In fact, there may be an increase in efforts to deny young people life-saving information.

That's where religious leaders and people of faith can play an important role -- in providing a faith-based voice for sexuality education and helping communities understand that providing sexuality education isn't just a public health issue, it's a moral responsibility. More than a dozen denominations and religious institutions are already involved, and a majority of people of faith from every denomination support sexuality education in school.

The Religious Institute has just made it easier for you to become involved. This morning, we published Just Say Know: A Faith Based Advocacy Guide for Sexuality Education. Just Say Know is an online guide to help clergy and religious leaders advocate for comprehensive sexuality education in public schools.

This guide provides background on comprehensive sexuality education, theological and spiritual grounding for advocacy, suggestions for involvement on the congregational, local, state and national levels, worship ideas, fact sheets, bibliographies and more. It will help you advocate for school based education in your community, state and nationwide, and includes resources for worship and social action in your congregation.

Check it out, become involved, and let us know what you think.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Listen To Your President

I just finished reading the President's remarks to America's school children tomorrow.

You can read them here:

His message: Work hard. Find something you love. Even young people facing the most difficult challenges can excel. Stay in school. Work hard. Make us all proud.

There are people who are objecting to this? Aren't these the messages that every parent wants for their children?

I don't get it. Unless of course, it's not about the message, but the man delivering them.

Have they forgotten he's the PRESIDENT? And that even ultraconservatives want their children to respect authority figures?

So, I'm email my son's school now and telling them I hope they'll share this message. And I hope you will call or email today or tomorrow am as well. And let's hope that most children will get to listen.

If not, you can always read it to them or watch online at dinner tomorrow night. It would be a good way to begin the school year.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Standing Up For International Sexuality Education: It's A Moral Obligation to the World's Youth

UNESCO was about to release new international guidelines for sexuality education next week. Instead, according to this article in the NY Times and verified for me by other sources, they have been pulled back due to pressure from US groups on the right that oppose comprehensive sexuality education.

UNESCO has pulled the draft from its website and says they are being revised. The complaints as you will read in this article include that the guidelines suggest that young people need a definition of masturbation, information about contraception, and to know how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases.

In other words, same old, same old objections. Despite more than 30 years of research that demonstrates that sexuality education can help young people delay sexual involvement and protect themselves, ultra conservatives still want to stop it. And the fact that organizations like UNFPA has now disassociated themselves from these new guidelines and UNESCO has slowed their release, shows that those voices are still winning -- and our children and teens are still the losers.

I'm taking this one a bit personally -- because as I just discovered, the guidelines part of this new work is actually based on the National Guidelines for Sexuality Education, a project I created when I was President of SIECUS, way back in 1990. Dr. Bill Yarber and I co-directed this project and developed its framework, goals, and key messages, with input from a national task force of experts. We then adapted the project for guidelines development with task forces in such countries as Brazil, India, Russia, and Nigeria.

The objections that are reported in the article are familiar, because we've heard them regularly in the past twenty years. The UNESCO document itself talks about anticipating controversy.

I'm trying to find out more about how people of faith and religious leaders can speak out about these documents, demonstrating once again that sexuality education isn't just a public health responsibility -- but a moral obligation. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Hate Speech Not Allowed Here

I'm just back from a mini-vacation, and I didn't take my computer with me.

I moderate the comments on this site. As my regular readers know, I encourage dialog and discussion, and have several "regulars" who disagree with my positions who post comments.

But, I have never posted hateful messages, and my latest blogs on abortion in health care reform and single sexually active adults seem to have brought out particularly vicious ones. They are not posted here, but any that contain threats are turned over to authorities.

The Bible teaches us to love our enemies; it doesn't say we have to post them on our blog.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Join the Viritual Rally to Support Dr. Leroy Carhart

Maybe you don't know his name.

But the anti-abortion terrorists do. He's one of the remaining doctors who performs late term abortions for women and families in desperate need.

Operation Rescue is targeting his clinic in Nebraska starting today.

NARAL has launched a virtual rally to support him. You can find out more at You can also find out more on twitter #drcarhart

Doctors like Dr. Carhart and Dr. Hern are heroes who deserve our support -- and federal protection. They risk their lives every day to provide legal medical services to women.

The least the rest of us can do is speak out on their right to do so. Join me. As Dr. Tiller said, Trust women.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

New Religious Institute Web Site!

That's the banner from my organization's newly redesigned website.

We're announcing it to the world today.
It contains the very first online database of denominational statements on sexuality issues. You can search 28 denominations and more than 20 sexuality issues, and find out what the official policy says.

It also has our first two online guides. Acting Out Loud is for faith communities that want to move from welcome to full inclusion. Just Say Know is designed to help clergy become involved in sexuality education.

It also has front page content that will change every day: news about sexuality and religion, new resources, a feed to our Twitter account, (follow us @religiousinst and me @revdebra), and a link to this blog.

We are so grateful to the people at BusinessArchitechs who donated a tremendous amount of time to creating our new web site. I met one of the owners on a cross country plane last December, and he was excited about our ministry. If you are looking for help on your web site, give them a call.

Check out the new website. We hope it will become your go-to portal for all things about religion and sexuality! Tell your friends and colleagues.

Let me know what you think!