- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2001

To its harshest critics, Unitarian Universalism is a religion about nothing. There are no required rituals. There is no church doctrine. Members dont even have to believe in God to belong.
But for centuries, most members have shared principles: They have been committed to progressive movements, from abolition to homosexual rights.
Now a group of churchgoers, including some political conservatives, is accusing the denomination of replacing spirituality with social activism. They are forming a rival organization to attract like-minded Unitarian Universalists.
The split has manifested itself as a trademark lawsuit over who has the right to the name American Unitarian Association, but the real divide is over the definition of religion.
"To a non-Unitarian Universalist, the idea that there needs to be a major effort to restore God to religion is oxymoronic," said David Burton, a 41-year-old lobbyist and co-founder of the maverick group. "But in many Unitarian Universalist congregations, and at the Unitarian Universalist Association, it is sometimes controversial to talk about God and the divine."
The Rev. John Buehrens, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Boston umbrella group for the denomination, argues Mr. Burton and his supporters are driven by politics.
"They claim a theological motive, but when you have a paid conservative lobbyist at the core of it, you wonder," Mr. Buehrens said.
Mr. Burton belongs to the Unitarian Universalists conservative forum and, as an attorney and lobbyist, represents Americans for Fair Taxation, which advocates replacement of the income tax with a national sales tax. He was on the Maryland steering committee of the 1984 Reagan-Bush presidential campaign and was an adviser to the 1988 National Republican Platform Committee.
He chose the name American Unitarian Association when he incorporated his group in Virginia. The Unitarian Universalist Association sued, arguing the name, which it never registered as a trademark, became its property in 1961 when Unitarians and Universalists merged.
"They are appropriating to themselves the Unitarian Universalist Associations history and good will and tradition," said Edward Leibensperger, the attorney representing the UUA.
The case also raises questions about who has rights to millions of dollars the Unitarian Universalists have been collecting from trusts established in the name of the American Unitarian Association. Mr. Burton said he would be willing to sign away any legal right to those funds.
The Unitarians, with roots in a movement that rejected Puritan orthodoxy in New England, are famously resistant to dogma. They have considered removing any reference to "God" from their principles. They debate whether to describe their houses of worship as churches or even call themselves a denomination.
Unitarians support a free search for spiritual truth. Atheists and pagans are a significant part of their membership. Jews, Buddhists, Christians and others sometimes join to maintain their traditions without having to accept, wholesale, their denominations creed.
Members say Unitarian Universalism is the only religion that allows them to change theology without changing churches.
"Almost all of us went through a long period of agnosticism and atheism," said the Rev. Carl Scovel, who led the Unitarian Universalists Kings Chapel in Boston for nearly 40 years. "We feel a sense of identity, a sense of sympathy, with those raising questions about conventional religion."
That questioning has led the denomination to take liberal positions on hot-button religious and political issues over the years.
Churchgoers were among the more active supporters of the civil rights movement. They not only endorse same-sex unions, but some churches also offer the couples premarital counseling.
Yet some Unitarians fear their denomination has become nothing more than a political debate club.
Mr. Burton was baptized a Presbyterian before marrying a Jewish woman and deciding to join the Unitarians. When he moved to the Washington area in 1995, he found the sermons more often concerned federal legislation than faith.
"There was little talk about spirituality. It became clear to me that that was commonplace throughout the country. The Unitarian tradition was basically being subsumed into a political movement."

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