by Michelle Bates Deakin
published March 18, 2013
UU World Magazine
Unitarian Universalist minister’s letter on gun control raises ire of state representative who says, ‘by all means, leave.’
The Rev. Audette Fulbright will not go quietly. In fact, she’s not planning to go at all, despite a suggestion by a Wyoming state representative that she leave the state.Fulbright, who is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne, wrote her state legislators to express concerns about bills that would allow armed guards in schools and expand hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) in the state. One state representative responded to her letter by telling her to “leave.”
“If you don’t like the political atmosphere of Wyoming, then by all means, leave,” wrote State Representative Hans Hunt. “We who have been here a very long time (I am proudly 4th generation) are quite proud of our independent heritage.”
The blunt, dismissive reply has ignited a flurry of response. Local newspapers and television stations quickly pounced on the story. The conservative news site The Blaze featured the dispute, as did Rachel Maddow’s liberal-leaning blog. Fulbright’s website and Facebook page buzzed with activity. And the exchange ignited debate as much about civility in public discourse as it did about guns in schools and fracking.
“I’d love to have garnered this much attention for something more meaningful than just being insulted,” said Fulbright. That being said, she said she is using it as an opportunity to model UU values and show “who we are and how we exist in the world.”
Fulbright moved to Wyoming in July 2012, accepting a call to become minister of the UU Church of Cheyenne. She saw part of her calling as engaging in public advocacy in a state where conservative policies often prevail and “where our liberal faith is desperately needed.”
In February she wrote to her state legislators, in part:
My husband and I moved to Wyoming not too long ago. We believed it was a good place to raise children. With the recent and reactive expansion of gun laws and the profoundly serious dangers of fracking, we find we are seriously reconsidering our decision, which is wrenching to all of us. However, the safety of our family must come first. We are waiting to see what the legislature does this session. I know of other new-to-Wyoming families in similar contemplation. Your choices matter. It would be sad to see an exodus of educated, childrearing age adults from Wyoming as a result of poor lawmaking.
Her letter would likely have attracted little, if any, attention had Rep. Hunt not issued his unwelcoming reply. Fulbright mentioned it on her Facebook page, which attracted the attention of another local minister, who wrote their Cheyenne newspaper about it. Then a TV station picked up the story, and it snowballed from there.
Hunt stuck to his dismissal of Fulbright. Interviewed in the Casper Star-Tribune, he said, “Was it blunt? Yes. Would I apologize? No.” He later added, “If I had to do it again, would I sit and think about how to phrase my words more carefully? Probably.”
Fulbright said that most of the responses she has gotten have been positive. The Star-Tribune ran an editorial called “Welcome to Wyoming,” castigating Hunt for his incivility. “Challenges such as Fulbright’s are meant to be answered, and answered respectfully and thoroughly,” the editorial said.
Neither of the bills Fulbright opposed passed the legislature.
Fulbright did receive negative comments, as others jumped on Hunt’s bandwagon encouraging her to leave. She has been careful to assure her parishioners that she has no intentions of doing that. After several ministerial transitions over the past six years, the congregation was settling down with a called minister. Fulbright wanted to reassure members that she was not leaving.
Fulbright was encouraged during the ministerial search process that the congregation was seeking a public liberal voice. “That was one of the reasons I came here,” she said. She helped the congregation oppose local raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) targeting undocumented workers. Fulbright also spoke before the Wyoming legislature to support a civil unions bill, which narrowly failed.
She thinks the publicity her exchange with Hunt generated has brought new members into the UU Church of Cheyenne. She quickly gained 50 Facebook friends. And she has seen new faces in the pews. Her public stance has helped some community members learn about the church, she said. “Cheyenne isn’t large enough for this active congregation to go unnoticed,” Fulbright said. “And a new minister with a higher profile doesn’t go unnoticed.”
Fulbright notes that she has been careful not to take criticism generated by the exchange personally—particularly anonymous posts to websites, which can be full of vitriol. “Whenever you step into the public arena you have to be prepared and have a spiritual practice or support for not getting bogged down in the unfortunate side of these things,” she said.
She has aimed to hold her head high and be a model for civility. “That’s what we UUs are about,” Fulbright said. “We appreciate frank conversation, but it should be based in respect, love, and compassion.”
Engaging civilly in disagreements is an opportunity, she believes, whether they are outside the congregation or within it. For example, she knows that members of her congregation hold many different positions on gun ownership issues. “If we UUs don’t step into that place [of disagreement] and say ‘This is who we are and how we exist in the world,’ we’re really missing our calling.”