A once-prominent interfaith organization co-founded by a sexologist and Unitarian Universalist minister advocating for unrestricted abortion as well as gay and transgender causes within churches is closing its doors.
Officials with the Connecticut-based Religious Institute cite several factors in their decision to cease operations.
“We came to the painful conclusion after several years of decreasing institutional support for our work,” a letter from the Religious Institute Board of Directors reads, also pointing to difficulties from the global pandemic. “…we will not be able to sustain operations long enough to weather the storm.”
The board includes among its members a Presbyterian seminary professor and Planned Parenthood chaplain who authored the book Erotic Justice as well as a “trans-femme and queer educator” and a rabbi who authored a thesis on “a Jewish feminist theology of abortion.”
The organization has survived difficult circumstances before. In 2012, I reported on the group’s scramble for financial support after a misappropriation scandal wiped out its funds. Foundation donors stepped in to keep the group afloat, but those institutional ties appear to be exhausted.
“At the beginning of the year we were close to securing a more stable financial home for the Religious Institute,” the board letter states. “The coronavirus global pandemic put an indefinite halt on those plans” and “support for us and our sister organizations who do this work has significantly eroded.”
The group’s Twitter account has been silent since April, indicating that the organization has been winding down activity for some time.
Sex and Seminaries
Co-founded in 2001 by The Rev. Debra Haffner, the Religious Institute styles itself an advocate for “sexual health, education and justice.” The institute touted strong ties to homosexual advocacy organizations, as well as liberal religious groups that operate within the Mainline Protestant churches. Organizers sought to implement training requirements for “sexually healthy congregations and religious institutions,” in Haffner’s words.
Haffner and the Religious Institute were critical of denominations that did not embrace them.
Responding to the decision of the United Methodist General Conference not to change language declaring homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” Haffner convened officials from two dozen liberal religious organizations to endorse a statement rebuking the church’s stance.
But the group’s interests were not just inside of church institutions. Notably, it spearheaded a defense of the contraception/abortifacient mandate in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The institute’s efforts nabbed Haffner an invitation to the 2014 Obama White House Easter Prayer Breakfast, where she posed with former National Association of Evangelicals official and “my favorite evangelical” the Rev. Richard Cizik and RCRC President Harry Knox.
“The argument that this [debate] is about religious freedom is a complete smoke screen,” Haffner told United Church of Christ minister Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in a 2012 radio interview that my IRD colleague Kristin Larson covered. “The fact that it’s now about birth control shows that it’s much bigger than a concern about embryos,” and supposedly, “about the Catholic hierarchy.”
According to Haffner, opposition to contraception is not about genuine religious convictions, but “really about women and their sexuality. It’s about sexuality for pleasure, not just for procreation.”
The institute’s historic focus on abortion and LGBTQ causes may have run aground in a season in which racial issues and criminal justice reform have predominated at the forefront of the Religious Left.
“This is a devastating loss for the movement at a time when sexual, gender and reproductive health, rights and justice are under great attack,” the board letter reads. “Our opponents are weaponizing the language of religious liberty as a core tactic to ban abortion, strip LGBTQ people of their rights and humanity, and deny basic sexual and reproductive health services to all people.”
The group claimed to mobilize “thousands of religious leaders” in support of socially liberal causes, of which abortion access was often central. Interim President Carol McDonald served for more than a decade at Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). Haffner, who retired from the Religious Institute in 2016, held positions at Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, and she has continued to represent the Religious Institute at protests and other events.
Religious Institute partner groups included PPFA, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), and the Center for Reproductive Rights “to demonstrate religious support for reproductive justice.”
According to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion think tank, the Religious Institute “has played a critical role in articulating the religious foundations for supporting sexual and reproductive rights and comprehensive sex education.”
As a growing number of Americans, and politically liberal Americans in particular, identify as “unaffiliated” there may have been less interest in engaging with religiously observant Americans, who are more likely to be Evangelical or Roman Catholic than to participate in Mainline Protestant denominations.
“We – as an organization and as individuals – have always been rooted in faith,” the Religious Institute Board of Directors insisted. “Faith in the dignity of every human being as a reflection of the divine image.”
But the unborn didn’t qualify, in the view of Haffner and others at the Religious Institute, which held that abortion is “a moral decision.”
“The health and life of the woman must take precedence over the life of the fetus,” a 2005 letter organized by the Religious Institute read.