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Timothy Riss, delegate from the New York Conference, joins the debate at General Conference.

Delegates leave coalition, adopt principles

Kathy L. Gilbert and Sam Hodges and by the Rev. Erik Alsgaard
Adapted from United Methodist News Service stories

General Conference 2016 ordered two United Methodist agencies to withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). That vote and the adoption of two new Social Principles were among the societal issues the assembly addressed.

RCRC is a coalition of  religious organizations in the United States. It acknowledges, "The views of each denomination or organization are their own and often vary." No church dollars directly fund the coalition, Susan Burton, executive with the General Board of Church and Society, told the delegates.

Delegates voted 425-268 to direct Church and Society and United Methodist Women to withdraw from the organization. A petition deleting language supporting RCRC from The Book of Resolutions also passed.

The United Methodist Church was a founding member of RCRC in 1973. The 2004, 2008 and 2012 General Conferences debated staying in the organization, because some church members disagree with the coalition's position on abortion. The argument to stay and have "a voice at the table" prevailed until this year.

Meeting in June, the New England, New York, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific-Northwest annual conferences voted to join RCRC and contribute to the organization. California-Nevada will join the California branch and Rocky Mountain affirmed its membership in the Colorado branch.

New Social Principles adopted

Statements on pornography and bullying are now part of the Social Principles. Both urge local churches to take action.

The use of pornography is "a form of sexual misconduct," says the statement. "Any sexually explicit material that depicts children is abhorrent and victimizes children. Pornography can ruin lives, careers, and relationships." It grieves "the pervasiveness of internet pornography, including among Christians, and especially its impact on young people and marriages."

The statement calls all churches to update their child, youth, and adult protection policies. It encourages them to commit "to safe environments for everyone, (to) strategize to eradicate pornography, to support victims, and to provide open and transparent conversation and education around sexuality and sexual ethics" and to "seek ways to offer support and care for addressing issues of addiction."

The church can play "a pivotal role" in ending bullying, says another new principle. Bullying, including cyber-bullying, is "a growing problem in parts of the connection. It is a contributing factor in suicide and in the violence we see in some cultures today. We affirm the right of all people regardless of gender, socio-economic status, race, religion, disability, age, physical appearance, sexual orientation and gender identity to be free of unwanted aggressive behavior and harmful control tactics."

The principle encourages "churches to adopt a policy of zero tolerance for bullying, including cyber-bullying."

No fossil fuels screen

General Conference 2016 did not add a fossil fuels investment screen for the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits.

Barbara Boigegrain, Pension and Health Benefits top executive, described the climate change issue as "urgent" but argued against a fossil fuels screen. "If we divest with companies, The United Methodist Church loses a voice at the table," she said.

"It would greatly reduce our flexibility" in trying to support energy companies making positive change, she added.

The Rev. Jenny Phillips, coordinator of Fossil Free UMC, told delegates that adding the fossil fuels screen would be a witness to countries that signed the Paris Agreement on climate change and need encouragement to follow through with changes to clean energy.

"Their leaders need clear signals from their constituents that people support a rapid transition ... A major global denomination's commitment to divestment would provide such a signal," Phillips said.

The pension board now has screens in place to prevent investments in companies involved with private prisons, alcohol, munitions, tobacco and pornography.

Support for village, but no divestment

An amendment offered during debate on socially responsible investing to divest from illegal settlements on occupied lands failed 559-167. Delegates did adopt a petition on behalf of a Palestinian village, Wadi Foquin.

Earlier during General Conference, the Finance and Administration legislative committee failed to support any petition calling for divestment from companies doing business in Israel.

Speaking for the amendment, Janice Nelson, a delegate from Oregon-Idaho, said staying at the table and pleading with companies to be socially responsible is not working.

"There are companies that are invested in profiting from the occupation of Palestine that we have been talking to for many, many years," Nelson said. "I would not ask us to divest from anybody until we had done the shareholder advocacy. ... It's time to say that we do not profit from the occupation of another people's lands, which is exactly what is going on. This is not anti-Israel; it's not anti-Jewish; it's anti-occupation."

The Rev. Alex Joyner, a reserve delegate from Virginia, said that divestment is unfair to Israel as it targets one party as a "bad actor" in the situation. "Divestment is built on the notion that Israel alone is responsible for the situation of the occupation, and that Israel, alone, can end it."

Delegates adopted a petition on behalf of a Palestinian village, where United Methodists support an Advance project and community development site. Letters are to be sent to President Barack Obama, State Department officials in the United States and Israel and the Israeli Civil Authority to express "our concerns over the confiscation of land and destruction of life in the village."

New resolutions

Among the new or amended statements to be included in The Book of Resolutions 2016 are resolutions addressing white privilege, racism and economic justice, immigration and global migration, global health and health care in the United States. Also included will be a statement strongly condemning the use of Native American names of mascots by athletic teams.

Adapted from United Methodist News Service stories, including articles by news writers Kathy L. Gilbert and Sam Hodges and by the Rev. Erik Alsgaard, editor of the Baltimore-Washington Connection.