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January 2010
From Your Interim Minister

 

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

E. M. Forster

 

Last December I was contacted by someone needing my help in Philadelphia.  He is a documentary producer who makes movies about people who chose to live rather than commit suicide.  He named his production company, "I Choose Hell," meaning that even if living were hell, he would still choose it.  The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania refused to issue him a license of incorporation on the grounds that his chosen company name was "blasphemous."  

So, why did he contact me through one of my Unitarian Universalist colleagues? I was contacted by him because the congregation that I serve in Philadelphia was served by the last man in the United States jailed for blasphemy, Abner Kneeland. Kneeland served several churches as minister, including the Second Universalist Church of Philadelphia, which eventually became known as the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration. After serving Universalist churches in Massachusetts Kneeland had a falling out with the Universalist faith because of their perceived doctrinal conservatism and left the ministry. 

He published articles stating his doubt in the Christian God, though he never denied the existence of God. Kneeland's theology was pantheist, much like that of Thoreau or Emerson.  His defense in the blasphemy trial was that the state constitution guaranteed the free practice of religion and freedom of the press.  The Commonwealth prosecutor however brought up some of Kneeland's more controversial stances like his support for women keeping their own names and property in marriage, women's right to divorce, his support for the right of persons of different races to marry, and most controversial his support for birth control. These were shocking ideas in 1838.  They swayed the all white, male jury that Kneeland was dangerous. Despite petitions to the court signed by famous people like William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Lloyd Garrison in defense of Kneeland's freedom of religious expression, he was found guilty and served a sixty-day sentence in prison. 

One hundred seventy one years later, I was being asked to become the friend of the court at an appeal for a man denied his incorporation license due to offending the law on the Pennsylvania books still banning blasphemy. It is shocking to imagine that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania still believes that speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things is still of legal importance rather than giving all the right to exercise freedom of religion. 

I am aware that my beliefs are probably blasphemous to someone.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith affirms "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning." If that search for truth is truly free then it will certainly transgress the boundaries of conventional religion, at least someone's conventional religion. I believe that the spiritual journey that questions is the one that arrives at personal truth.   

In the end, I signed the legal brief, becoming an amicus curia, friend of the court in the case. I hope that this support lives up to Abner Kneeland's example and that the government will get out of the business of prosecuting blasphemy. It is a waste of our energy and a constriction on our deepest freedom—one which we Unitarian Universalists hold dear. 

See you in church,

Rev. Larry Smith   

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