The highly publicized suicide of a member of the Unitarian church focused new attention on the denomination's liberal social stands as leaders began their annual conference Friday.
Two years ago, the church endorsed the right to die, and leaders voiced support for Janet Adkins, an Alzheimer's disease patient who used a suicide machine to end her life June 4.
The issue was expected to be a prime topic of discussion at the five-day annual conference of the Unitarian-Universalist Association, said the Rev. William Schultz, the church's national president.
Schultz declined to say if he expected attempts to reverse the church's support for euthanasia. He continues to support the principle, and noted it is characteristic of the denomination, which has endorsed homosexual marriages and marijuana legalization and prides itself on its open-minded approach to social issues.
"Unitarian-Universalists have always affirmed that religion is not a Sunday morning experience," Schultz said in an interview.
"Unitarian-Universalists believe religious principles need to be brought to bear on public policy questions and the political events of the day," he said.
About 3,000 delegates were expected to attend the conference of the Boston-based church, which claims about 190,000 members and 1,010 congregations nationally.
Mrs. Adkins, of Portland, Ore., ended her life June 4 in a van in a Detroit suburb. Dr. Jack Kevorkian hooked her up to a suicide device he built, enabling the 54-year-old woman to give herself a lethal dose of chemicals.
Kevorkian hasn't been charged with a crime, but a court issued an injunction barring further use of the machine.
Unitarian-Universalists endorsed the right to die at their 1988 meeting. Leaders voiced support for Mrs. Adkins, though a Unitarian minister in Michigan refused to let her use the machine inside a church.
Euthanasia is far from the first difficult issue for Schultz, who has led the church since 1985.
"We have always been outspoken that we as religious people have every right and even an obligation to speak out the truth as we see it to those who govern us and who are in positions of power," he said.
At their general assembly in 1984, the church became the first major denomination to sanction marriages between homosexual couples.
In 1975, the Unitarian-Universalists set up a national office for homosexual concerns. In the early 1970s, it sponsored sex education courses and passed a resolution calling for the legalization of marijuana. It has long supported abortion rights, and supported birth control as early as 1962.
Schultz said unlike most mainstream Christian bodies, the church doesn't have a single doctrine. Instead, it attempts to keep faith as open and tolerant as possible.
"There is no theology that everyone is required to believe in, but that doesn't mean there aren't common principles we adhere to," he said.
"We believe the world, the universe is too grand, too complex, too mysterious to be captured or capsulized in any one creed on any one religious tradition."
The first Universalist church in North America was established in Gloucester, Mass., in 1779. In 1961, it merged with the Unitarian church, a 16th-century church founded in Romania.