by YAC Co-Chairs, Emily Cross-Barnet and Carrie DiGregorio
The youth of the church raised an important voting rights issue at the last Annual Meeting: the church is not currently including all voices in its decision making. So we, the Youth Adult Committee (composed of all the youth, all the youth advisors, and the DRE) have been debating and exploring with other members of the congregation what it would take to enfranchise members who have been through the Coming of Age process.
The committee has concluded that the following must be considered in decisions of youth voting rights:
â€¢ Unitarian Universalist Principles
â€¢ Church Constitution and Bylaws
â€¢ Congregational practice within Unitarian Universalism
â€¢ Coming of Age as religious formation and preparation for membership
â€¢ Legal matters
Our Unitarian Universalist Principles affirm that all members deserve a voice. The fifth Unitarian Universalist Principle states: “[We affirm] the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” In Religious Education classes and youth programs throughout Unitarian Universalism, we are taught that an important UU value is that all persons should have a vote about the things that concern them. Youth members of the congregation do not exist in a separate category from other members of the congregation. Everything that affects the congregation affects youth as well.
Our own bylaws prohibit age-based discrimination.
â€œSection 2. Non-Discrimination Clause. In concurrence with the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we declare and affirm our special responsibility and that of our members to promote the full acceptance into membership and participation of persons in all of our activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, color, gender, gender identity or expression, physical or mental challenge, affectional or sexual orientation, age or national origin.â€
It is common practice in UU congregations for youth to have full-membership status, including voting rights.
In Maryland and throughout the country, many UU Congregations understand voting rights for youth to be part of our core values. Youth enfranchisement is an important tool in helping young people understand the responsibility of becoming an educated and thoughtful participant in democratic systems. UU Congregations of Annapolis, Rockville, River Road, and more all grant voting rights to youth.
Youth must be thoroughly prepared before becoming members. Before any youth would be allowed the right to be a voting member, they would have to complete the Coming of Age Program. This program is acknowledged by the UUA as the transition from youth to religious adulthood. It is designed for teens. The program involves weekly, two-hour meetings over the course of approximately 6 months as well as weekend retreats and service projects. Coming of Age participants work with adult leaders and with a spiritual mentor. Coming of Age helps youth discern for themselves what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist, individually and as part of the larger faith community. To complete Coming of Age, participants make a public faith statement to the entire church community. This program is far more extensive than the Beginners class that is required for new members 18 and over. (For more on the importance and value of Coming of Age please see the DLRE column elsewhere in this issue of the Beacon.)
In our research we have found no legal obstruction to giving a vote to church members under age 18. In the past there were members who were concerned that there may be legal implications of allowing minors to vote. We are not aware of any statute or case law that would indicate this. Many Maryland churches, including Unitarian Universalist congregations, allow youth under the age of 18 to vote.
Not every youth will choose to become a member of this congregation, but those who do care deeply about its well-being and take the right to vote very seriously. YAC members recognize being a voting member should be based on demonstrated commitment, responsibility, and maturity. In accordance with the importance of voting rights and the concerns expressed by some members of the congregation, our proposal holds youth who wish to become full voting members to an even higher standard than adult church members.
For more information about this issue, see our Frequently Asked Questions brochure, contact YAC co-chairs, Emily and Carrie, or attend our Informational meeting after worship on April 8. Be an informed voter!
Proposed addition to the churchâ€™s constitution (in italics):
Article IV: Qualification to Vote
Members of the church who have completed the Coming of Age Program or who are eighteen years or older, have been members for the preceding three months, and who in addition, have either participated in the activities of the church or have made a recorded financial contribution to the church are eligible to vote at meetings of the congregation.