Unitarian Universalists Sue For Right To Use Solar Panels, Cite Religious Freedom

Solar panels are seen on the roof of St. Mark Lutheran Church, in Trenton, NJ in 2007. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MEL EVANS
Solar panels are seen on the roof of St. Mark Lutheran Church, in Trenton, NJ in 2007. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MEL EVANS

A Unitarian Universalist church is suing the town of Bedford, Massachusetts for denying a request to install solar panels on its property, arguing that authorities are infringing on the congregation’s right to express their religious belief in clean energy solutions.

According to RLUIPA Defense, the First [Unitarian Universalist] Parish in Bedford applied for a “certificate of appropriateness” to install solar panels on its Meetinghouse earlier this year, only to be denied by the town’s Historic District Commission. In response, the congregation filed a complaint on June 27 based on an unusual argument: that the denial violated their congregation’s free exercise of religion, specifically the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as Article II of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

Unitarian Universalists across the nation believe that their religion necessarily involves taking action…to confine and mitigate mankind’s role in causing and exacerbating global warming.

“The decision exceeds the authority of the HDC, was legally untenable, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious, and violated the rights of the members of First Parish to the free exercise of their religious beliefs…,” the complaint reads.

The complaint contends that the seventh (of seven) principle of Unitarian Universalism implores followers to “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part,” which the parish interprets to mean an abiding respect for the environment. Citing the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) longstanding support for conservation efforts and environmental protection, First Parish notes that it applied to the UUA to become a “Green Sanctuary,” a status that requires, among other things, installing solar panels to generate 75 percent of all energy used by the congregation.

The complaint argues that achieving this goal is a required part of their faith tradition.

“In modern times, adherence to the Seventh Principle has involved confronting and mitigating evolving environmental threats,” the complaint reads. “By far the most pressing of these threats in today’s world is climate change. As such, Unitarian Universalists across the nation believe that their religion necessarily involves taking action on a personal, congregational and community level to confine and mitigate mankind’s role in causing and exacerbating global warming.”

The religious liberty framework of the suit is unusual, as the legal argument is more often used by conservative faith groups such as evangelical Christians, not deeply progressive religious traditions such as the UUA. Yet progressive claims to religious liberty are becoming more common: in 2014, a group of left-leaning clergy filed suit against the state of North Carolina claiming that its ban on same-sex marriage violated the religious freedom of progressive faith leaders who see officiating LGBT weddings a spiritual duty. Although a judge ultimately ignored the religious liberty claim, the court’s pro-LGBT ruling on the case did legalize marriage equality in the state.

In addition, faith groups of all persuasions are ramping up efforts to help end the scourge of climate change. Beginning in early 2015, Pope Francis unveiled his famous encyclical on the environment calling for global action to end global warming, a group of Islamic leaders from 20 countries unveiled a similarly bold declaration on climate change later that year, and the Episcopal Church voted to withdraw investments in fossil fuel companies.