Tag Archives: Religious Institute

Rev. Haffner Rallies For Reproductive Rights

Debra Haffner has attended plenty of Supreme Court rallies.

As co-founder and president of Religious Institute — the Westport-based  organization that advocates for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society — she’s stood on the famed Washington steps. She’s demonstrated her — and her organization’s — commitment to access to contraception (the Hobby Lobby case) and same-sex marriage (Obergefell).

Yesterday, though, was the first time she had a spot on the podium.

Rev. Debra Haffner (center) speaking on the steps of the Supreme Court yesterday.

Rev. Debra Haffner (center) speaking on the steps of the Supreme Court yesterday.

The Center for Reproductive Rights — which represents medical caregivers in a case argued yesterday before the 8 justices (a Texas law would shut down more than 75% of all women’s health clinics that provide abortion services there) — organized the 4-hour rally.

Speakers included women from Texas who told their personal stories; healthcare providers, and a broad variety of faith leaders.

Haffner — who spoke soon after California Congresswoman Barbara Lee — noted that “people of faith of every religion support the right of individuals to make their own moral decisions.” She said that “clear majorities from almost every major religious tradition in the United States support safe and legal abortion.”

She said that Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Unitarians, Buddhists, Hindus — and “people who say they are spiritual but not religious” — support abortion.

In fact, she added, “1 in 3 evangelical Christians” support legal abortion.

Haffner noted that one of the 1st abortion clinics in the US was opened by clergy.

Rev. Debra Haffner

Rev. Debra Haffner

She said that abortion is not a sin. Rather, sins are “forced childbearing; denying people contraception, reproductive healthcare and sexuality education; and denying poor women, women of color and women in rural communities the same access to safe, accessible medical services that more privileged women have.”

Haffner — who is also community minister at Westport’s Unitarian Church — cited other sins too: poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and “ignoring the lives and needs of children who are already born for food, clean water, housing, health care, good education, and for their parents, support and good paying jobs.”

PBS Newshour led its evening broadcast last night with some of Haffner’s remarks (click here for link):

Debra Hafner PBS News Hour

Haffner will retire on April 30. But until that day, she speaks loudly and strongly for the organization she founded.

Many people are listening. Last weekend, Religious Institute coordinated a national weekend of prayer. Nearly 100 congregations in 25 states — representing 19 faith traditions — prayed for everyone affected by reproductive laws. And for the Supreme Court justices who will rule on the case heard yesterday.

“People of faith support reproductive justice,” Haffner says. “The other side does not have a monopoly on this issue.”

Rev. Haffner: A Washington Witness For Same-Sex Marriage

As president of the Religious Institute — the Westport-based organization that advocates nationally for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society — Rev. Debra Haffner has done plenty to advance the cause of same-sex marriage.

Religious Institute logoShe helped gather signatures of 1,900 faith leaders on a friend-of-the-court brief, aimed at countering religious arguments against same-sex marriage prior to today’s Supreme Court hearing on 4 related cases.

She helped organize last Saturday and Sunday’s National Weekend of Prayer for the Freedom to Marry. More than 315 congregations from 46 states participated in responsive readings and prayers for “the wisdom of justices, the skills of attorneys and the well-being of plaintiffs” in the days ahead.

A scene from Sunday's prayer service at the National City Church in Washington, DC.

A scene from Sunday’s prayer service at the National City Church in Washington, DC.

On Sunday, the Religious Institute co-sponsored a prayer service at Washington’s National City Christian Church.

Rev. Haffner — who also serves as community minister at Westport’s Unitarian Church — was a worship leader at Sunday’s service. She was very moved — but there was more to come. She stayed in Washington 2 more days. “I wanted to witness history,” she says.

This morning she joined a faith rally at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, 6 blocks from the Supreme Court.

She and hundreds of others then marched to the Court itself.

Rev. Haffner has been to the Supreme Court twice in the past 2 years. Those cases were huge: Windsor, which advanced the right to same-sex marriage, and Hobby Lobby, in which the justices ruled that a business can choose to be exempt from a law its owners religiously object to.

Today, Rev. Haffner says, the crowds were much bigger. “There was a small band of ‘antis,’ with pretty disgusting signs,” she says. “But we outnumbered them 10 to 1.”

Rev. Debra Haffner and Rev. Yvette Flunder, founder of a multi-denominational fellowship of 56 primarily African American churches.

Rev. Debra Haffner and Rev. Yvette Flunder, founder of a multi-denominational fellowship of 56 primarily African American churches.

The Supreme Court heard 2 1/2 hours of arguments — an exceptionally long time. Throughout the morning, Rev. Haffner and others stood outside. “There was some singing,” she says. “But mostly, witnessing.”

She wore her clerical collar and stole. “So many people came by and thanked us for our witness,” she says.

On the train back to Westport, she read expert analyses of the arguments.

“It sounds like less of a slam-dunk than we thought,” she says. “Justice Kennedy — the swing vote — seemed to be unreadable.

“But I think this is a decision whose time has come. It’s time to ratify what a majority of people across the country already know: that everyone deserves the right to marry.”

The justices will rule in June.

Rev. Debra Haffner and Harry Knox. He is the president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Rev. Debra Haffner and Harry Knox. He is the president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Debra Haffner Prays With The President

The email was exciting: President Obama invites you to the annual Easter Prayer Breakfast, held in the East Room the day after Palm Sunday.

“White House invitations are always a little mysterious,” says Rev. Debra Haffner, president of the Westport-based Religious Institute. She thinks it may have been because her multi-faith organization — which advocates for sexual health, education and justice — has supported contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act.

This was Rev. Haffner’s 3rd trip to the White House. But it was the smallest gathering — 150 clergy — and, in many ways, the most moving.

“Some people call these events ‘window dressing,'” she said. “But it was very profound.”

Rev. Debra Haffner sat this close to President Obama (and George Washington) in the East Room.

Rev. Debra Haffner sat this close to President Obama (and George Washington) in the East Room.

President Obama opened his remarks by citing the shootings the previous day at 2 Jewish facilities in Kansas. He said that no one should be fearful when they pray, and called on members of all faiths to combat the ignorance and intolerance that leads to anti-Semitism, hatred and violence.

Rev. Haffner — who laughs that she may have been “the 1st Jewish-Unitarian Universalist minister” at the event — had walked over from her hotel with Pastor Joel Hunter. He leads a 20,000-member mega-church in Orlando, and gave the opening prayer.

“People across the theological spectrum prayed together,” Rev. Haffner notes. “There was a very inclusive message, in a very diverse room.”

Dr. Otis Moss — who took over at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ after Rev. Jeremiah Wright stepped down — gave a powerful sermon. The black theologian tied together Anne Frank, Martin Luther King and the Easter celebration in a “spellbinding” way, Dr. Haffner says.

She was seated very near the front. Her table included Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, head of the 40,000-plus Hispanic Evangelical Association. Rev. Haffner told him about the Religious Institute’s Safer Congregations movement — keeping children and vulnerable adults safe from abuse and harassment — and says, “There’s a good chance we will work together on it.”

Rev. Debra Haffner with Gene Robinson, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.

Rev. Debra Haffner with Gene Robinson, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.

Also at their table: Bishop Vashti McKenzie, the 1st female head of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

At the end of the breakfast, President Obama looked around. No one was scheduled to give the closing prayer, so he asked Rev. Gene Robinson — the retired openly gay Episcopal bishop — to give the benediction. He was as surprised as anyone, but spoke movingly, off the cuff.

“Starting with Joel and ending with Gene really shows the broad theological spectrum” of the day — and the administration — Rev. Haffner says.

After the breakfast, President Obama greeted the clergy. Rev. Haffner’s table was 1st — and she was the 1st member of her group that he spoke with.

Returning to Westport from Washington, Rev. Haffner reflected on the day — and all that came before it.

“My grandparents immigrated from Poland and Ukraine,” she says. “I don’t think they could ever have imagined this.”

(If your browser does not take you directly to YouTube, click here.)


This h communities and society.

Debra Haffner To ESPN: That’s A Foul!

When Jason Collins came out as the 1st gay male athlete currently active in a major American team sport, ESPN’s Chris Broussard called homosexuality “an open rebellion to God.”

Some Americans said “amen!” Many more said “aaaargh!”

Rev. Debra Haffner

Rev. Debra Haffner

Debra Haffner swung into action.

Rev. Haffner — president of Religious Institute, the Westport-based national multifaith organization advocating for sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society — organized an online petition.

It read:

Stop Trying to Score Points By Misrepresenting My Religion!

If ESPN addresses religious issues, it must include leaders from the many religious traditions that affirm sexual and gender diversity as a blessing, or they must cease from commenting on such issues entirely. We strongly support open dialogue, but true dialogue cannot be one sided.


Haffner and her organization then had “dialogue” — phone conversations and emails — with Monica Diaz. ESPN’s vice president for diversity, inclusion and wellness cited her network’s long history of commitment to women, people of color and the LGBT community.

Okay, said Religious Institute. But if the on-air comment had been racist rather than anti-gay, it would have been dealt with immediately — and in far stronger terms than ESPN’s president’s initial tepid apology.

Haffner says she and her staff will work with ESPN to ensure a broad spectrum of religious views when reporting future stories.

If, that is, ESPN feels the need to include religion at all.

Rev. Haffner Celebrates Roe

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision in favor of Roe, in the important abortion case versus Wade.

Two days ago, Rev. Debra Haffner — community minister with Westport’s Unitarian Church, and president and CEO of the Westport-based Religious Institute (a national multifaith organization advocating for sexual health, education and justice) –celebrated the event.

Rev. Debra Haffner

Rev. Debra Haffner

She led the litany at a special service at Washington’s First Congregational United Church of Christ. Attendees included elected officials and their staffs who have worked tirelessly in the area of abortion rights. The sponsor was the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Organizations represented included Catholics for Choice, and the National Latino Roundtable.

“We held these men and women in our prayers for their courageous support of reproductive justice,” Rev. Haffner said.

She called abortion “a moral decision that should be left to a woman, her family, her doctor and her faith.”

Rev. Haffner said the service was “beautiful. There was wonderful music, plenty of enthusiasm, a rabbi and several Christian ministers.”

One highlight: an award given to an African-American doctor. For years, he was the only abortion provider in the state of Mississippi.

But, Rev. Haffner says, the battle for reproductive rights is not yet over.

“I was 18 — a freshman at Wesleyan — when I learned that Roe v. Wade had been decided.

“I’m now 58, and post-menopausal. I never could have imagined that we’d still be fighting this fight.”

The Religious Institute Keeps The Faith

Since 2001, the Religious Institute has been a staunch advocate for sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society.

Based in Westport, it works tirelessly to assist clergy, congregations and denominational bodies nationwide in addressing sexuality and reproductive health. It also helps sexual and reproductive health organizations  address religious issues, and reach out to faith communities.

Its existence was severely threatened recently — but not by conservative politicians or anti-abortion evangelicals.

In February, 64-year-old Rev. Steven Clapp of Fort Wayne, Indiana told the Religious Institute that The Christian Community Inc. — the non-profit he’d run since 1996, and which managed the Religious Institute’s money — was broke. Nearly $425,000 was gone.

On March 18, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette said that Clapp attributed the loss to “bad financial decisions.”

Rev. Steven Clapp

Now, however, the paper reports that Clapp’s criminal record has “come to light.” In 1988 he was convicted of fraud, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay more than $2.1 million in restitution.

After serving 56 months, Clapp was released. His probation ended a year before he took over the Religious Institute’s finances, the Journal Gazette said.

The Religious Institute does not have tax-exempt status. That’s why Christian Community was a “fiscal sponsor,” taking donations and paying bills and staff.

Rev. Debra Haffner — the Religious Institute’s executive director, and community minister at Westport’s Unitarian Church — described herself as “disbelieving. It felt very difficult to reconcile that to the person I had known since 1998,” she told the paper.

“The initial news was horrible, but the extent of the betrayal and how long it’s gone on is even more difficult.”

She added, “If we were the only victim, I would really be questioning my own judgment at this time. But there are many organizations and many victims … He was obviously very good at what he did in a way that’s horrifying.”

Rev. Debra Haffner

Clapp’s audits showed that Christian Community’s finances were sound. However, the Journal Gazette said, a 2009 audit was signed with a Chicago name that does not match any licensed accountants in Illinois or Indiana.

Yet despite its enormous financial loss, the Religious Institute survives. According to an email sent by Rev. Hafner, 2/3 of the annual budget was raised in just 5 weeks, and several foundations are considering emergency grants. The organization is applying for non-profit status.

On the Institute’s website, Rev. Hafner wrote:

Our 2012 work will continue because it must. Even during this crisis we have continued to speak out on reproductive justice, LGBT equality, and sexuality education on television, radio, and in print media.

In a few weeks we are convening an amazing group of theologians to develop a new Open Letter to Religious Leaders on contraception. We are moving ahead with our plans for the Rachel Sabbath Initiative on Mother’s Day weekend, and I’m back to co-writing our new guide for congregations on the internet.

And, while waiting for IRS non-profit approval, Westport’s Unitarian Church has stepped up to serve as temporary fiscal agent.

Last weekend, both the Christian and Jewish faiths celebrated renewal. Now — after a frightening few weeks — the Religious Institute is doing the same.

Westport's Unitarian Church