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Episcopal Church takes stand for civil liberties

Interview by staff |
July 19, 2012
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Newland Smith
Newland Smith (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Fight Back! interviewed Newland Smith, a member of the Committee Against Political Repression in Chicago, the local affiliate of the Committee to Stop FBI Repression. Smith led a campaign within the national convention of the Episcopal Church to take a stand for civil liberties in the face of repression of Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians and peace activists. The convention adopted a resolution expressing concern, which will become part of the Episcopalian legislative agenda. There are 30 to 40 members of U.S. Congress who are practicing Episcopalians.

As the first national religious denomination to adopt such a resolution, this is a very important development and sends a strong message to President Obama and Attorney General Holder that opposition to political repression is spreading.

Fight Back!: You’ve been involved in the peace movement for a while. Tell us about your history.

Newland Smith: I became involved in the peace movement in the 1980s when I became an active member of the Chicago chapter of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. One of the members was Michael Yasutake, a Japanese American Episcopal priest who was very active in a ministry to political prisoners. I also am one of the founding members of the Episcopal Diocese’s Anti-Racism team which came together in 1999 in the struggle to dismantle structures of institutional racism. And as a Deputy to the Episcopal Church’s General Convention since 1988, I have served on the National and International Affairs Legislative Committee a number of times and have entered into the debates on social justice resolutions.

Fight Back!: You are also very active in Palestine solidarity work. How did you get involved?

Smith: In 1983 I was invited to serve as a library consultant for Saint George’s College in East Jerusalem. Seven years later, during the week of events celebrating the new college building, 60 of the participants went to Gaza City to the Anglican Ahli Arab Hospital and saw wounded Palestinians being brought into that 60-bed hospital. We were shown a bullet taken from a wounded Palestinian and saw that the bullet had been made in Pennsylvania. A director of one of the NGOs in Gaza Strip charged those of us from the United States to return home and as members of a democracy work to change our country’s policy on Israel/Palestine.

Fight Back!: You presented a resolution at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church held in Indianapolis this month. Could you talk about what happened?

Smith: As a member of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Social Justice and Public Policy, I brought up the attacks on American civil liberties at the Commission’s meeting in the Fall of 2010 and a year later drafted a resolution with suggestions from several of the other members. The resolution with explanation was incorporated into the Commission’s report which appeared in the “Blue Book,” a compilation of reports with resolutions from the Commissions and Boards of the Episcopal Church for action by General Convention which meets every three years. The resolution, “American Civil Liberties,” (A079) was assigned to the National and International Affairs Legislative Committee, of which I was a member even though I was not a member of the sub-committee that worked on this resolution. As the originator of the resolution, I spoke to it at the hearing at one of the committee’s meetings. It had already been made clear to me that the Episcopal Church through its General Convention would not get into a Grand Jury proceeding. So I took the high road, i.e., attacks on American civil liberties, which was eventually heard by the subcommittee working on this resolution. The substitute resolution, which made no mention of the FBI raids on the 23 anti-war and peace activists, was approved by the Committee, was placed on the daily Consent Calendar in the House of Deputies which meant there would be no debate on the floor of that House, passed, and the next day the House of Bishops concurred. The resolution is now in the hands of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations, the Church’s lobbying group in Washington.

Fight Back!: What was the message of the resolution that you submitted?

Smith: The message of the original resolution was that General Convention express its concern of the use of the two acts and Supreme Court decision which allowed a federal district court to issue Grand Jury subpoenas and the chilling effect these subpoenas have on God’s call to peacemaking as well as their impact on Arab, Palestinian and Muslim communities of the United States. The resolution is to be sent to President Obama and Attorney General Holder.

Fight Back!: Did you find support from other delegates?

Smith: I had the support of the three Bishops and 10 Deputies who were members of the Standing Commission. One Deputy who is a lawyer for a legal aid organization in the South Bronx also spoke at the hearing on the resolution. But because the resolution was not debated on the floor of the House of Deputies, it is difficult to judge how much support this resolution had in the House of Deputies, although the Bishops did vote to concur with the resolution.

Fight Back!: The resolution was amended through the convention process. Could you tell us about that?

Smith: I addressed this earlier. In short, instead of citing the Grand Jury subpoenas to the 23 anti-war and peace activists, the resolution cites the use of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the Patriot Act, and the Supreme Court decision, “Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project,” to chill God’s call to peacemaking.

Fight Back!: What lessons should people resisting repression take from your experience?

Smith: To change institutional policy, one must work through the structures of the institution. In the case of the Episcopal Church, this is the General Convention. In other words, organizing is essential. I was fortunate in that I was a long time Deputy, a member of one of the Standing Commissions and was assigned to the legislative committee that considered the resolution.