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We Must Oppose the Alarming Legislative Push to Silence Climate Activism

It is a critical time to defend our First Amendment rights and religious freedoms by halting the momentum of those who seek to criminalize our activism.

By Ana Maria De La Rosa on October 11, 2019

A heartening outcome of the recent climate strikes: awakening more people to the understanding that the climate crisis is not years away — but has already arrived at their doorstep. The fossil fuel industry has been fighting against this mass awareness for years, working to protect its interests and profits over our rights and our lives. People of faith and conscience should be shocked at how quickly the oil and gas lobbyists have successfully helped to enact laws to suppress climate activists’ voices at all costs. Since November 2016, 16 states have passed legislation that turn peaceful protests and nonviolent direct actions into criminal offenses, with similar bills pending in many other states.

These bills are the outcome of systematic governmental and corporate targeting of Indigenous water protectors — like those who were prosecuted for their activism at Standing Rock — who fight for their livelihoods and our planet’s survival, standing in resistance to the greedy extraction of earth’s resources. While the legislation varies in each state, in all cases these bills have the singular goal of punishing those willing to defend the environment by silencing speech and eroding the freedom to assemble.

In Ohio, for example, SB 33 seeks to impose heavy fines up to $10,000 and possible prison time for citizens who “tamper with critical infrastructure facilities” — which could extend to a peaceful protest at the entrance of a pipeline site. It also could levy fines up to $100,000 against congregations, grassroots organizations, or anyone else deemed “complicit” in such work. The bill’s language is intentionally vague, designed to shut down or bankrupt any organization taking climate action and to intimidate good people into silence — including religious leaders and faith communities.

Unitarian Universalist congregations in Ohio face potentially dire consequences for their justice work and financial stability if this bill becomes law. As these laws gain acceptance and proliferate across the country, it is ever more urgent that we respond to this wake-up call to act. It is a critical time to defend our First Amendment rights and religious freedoms by halting the momentum of those who seek to criminalize our activism.

If you live in the Ohio area, please help by contacting your state representatives and tell them you oppose SB33. You can also voice your concern to Representative Jamie Callender, chairman of the House Public Utilities Committee, by calling his office at (614) 644-6074.

We urge everyone to please sign up for our climate justice activist list to receive future updates for action in your area.

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This is a transcript of the opposition testimony given to the Ohio Legislature from Reverend Joan VanBecclaere, Executive Director of Unitarian Universalist Justice Ohio

September 25, 2019
Opposition Witness Testimony, SB 33
Ohio House Public Utilities Committee

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister and the Executive Director of Unitarian Universalist Justice Ohio, serving all of the UU congregations in Ohio. I am also a member of the Coordinating Committee of the Ohio Poor People’s Campaign and a citizen of Ohio who is deeply opposed to SB 33.

Others will talk about how this bill attacks freedom of speech and assembly. Others will note how this bill, and others like it in other states, has been drafted by the oil and gas industry to preserve profits above all else in the face of growing concern with fossil fuel use and climate change.

I want to raise the argument that this bill also attacks the faith community and prohibits justice-focused congregations of all traditions from exercising their religious call to engage in public witness at those sites where the health and life of people are most endangered and the sacred integrity of the environment is put in jeopardy.

Since Ohio law already prohibits ‘criminal trespass’, ‘aggravated trespass,’ and ‘criminal mischief’ to property, the only purpose for this bill seems to be to enormously increase the penalties and fines for citizens, non-profit groups and even congregations who engage in non-violent public witness.  This bill is an attempt to intimidate and muzzle free speech and protest that might lead to delay in pipeline construction or fracking well drilling and consequently damage corporate profits.

SB 33 imposes outrageous fines on groups found to be “complicit” with protestors who trespass or improperly tamper or are found to have intent to tamper with infrastructure sites, no matter how peaceful the group’s own actions might be.  And the definitions of “tamper” or “intend to tamper” are incredibly vague and wide open to a variety of possible interpretations. Non-profits like the Sierra Club or UU Justice Ohio – or your own congregation – could face fines up to $100,000 if found to be complicit.  This would destroy many non-profits and most congregations.

For example: If a person participating in a lawful and peaceful protest organized by a congregation’s justice ministry team decides to break away from the group and tampers in some way with infrastructure, then liability for that individual’s actions would also fall on the innocent congregation   And what if this tampering person has actually been paid by outsiders to cause damage in an attempt to muzzle the congregation or non-profit from speaking out?

How far does complicity extend? Does it include Facebook event posts?  An announcement on Sunday morning? Preaching an inspiring sermon on environmental justice from the pulpit?  Any of these could potentially make a non-profit or church complicit. Do I need to muzzle my preaching to save my congregation?

In addition, SB 33 prohibits a congregation from assisting a member in paying their protest fines. This blocks a congregation from its religious duty to care for its members in times of distress and need.

SB 33 would criminalize the ministry of justice-focused congregations and faith-based groups who engage in peaceful public protest at sites of environmental damage in response to their belief in a God who cares for creation.  It threatens faith groups with felonies and fines if we raise our voices in criticism of policies and practices that destroy that creation. Congregations held liable for the crime of complicity could be destroyed by fines for damage they did not cause, and then be unable to assist their members in need.

This truly constitutes an attack on freedom of religion. And for these reasons, many in the Ohio faith community are alarmed by SB 33. This bill is clearly intended to intimidate the people of Ohio into a chilling silence in the face of injustice.  And to threaten individuals and faith and environmental groups so they cower in fear of bankruptcy rather than speak out in prophetic protest.

When Americans abandon their commitment to freedom of speech and assembly along with freedom of religion to speak truth to power, the world will notice how far we have fallen. Please stop SB 33.

Photo Credit: Jennifer O’Rourke

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About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

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