The Washington Ethical Society

The Washington Ethical Society

As I was on a recent bike ride, I rode by The Washington Ethical Society, located at 7750 16th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Shepherd Park neighborhood.  I must admit, my first thought was that the name seemed like an oxymoron, especially here in D.C. But then I realized that I didn’t really know anything about the organization, so I decided to find out more.

The Washington Ethical Society consists of approximately 400 members, and is part of the what is known as the Ethical movement, also referred to as the Ethical Culture movement or simply Ethical Culture, which is an ethical, educational, and religious movement.  Ethical culture traces its origins back to Felix Adler, a German American professor of political and social ethics, rationalist, lecturer, and social reformer.

The Society functions much like a church, but is as a non-theistic institution honoring the importance of ethical living without mandating a belief in a supernatural origin for ethics. They describe themselves as a “humanistic congregation that affirms the worth of every person.”

In addition to Sunday morning meetings called “platforms” which consist of music, meditation, and a presentation on a theme, the Society also offers a wide variety of programs for families, singles, couples, and seniors. Programs at the Society include serving meals at the Luther Place Night Shelter; working with incarcerated persons; advocating for voting rights and autonomy for the Disctrict of Columbia; international outreach through a partnership between the Society and the people of the city of El Rodeo in El Salvador, and; a political and social activism group called ActForGood, which is involved in a variety of issues, from global warming to the shooting earlier this year in Ferguson, Missouri.

But the Society is probably best known by most people for having initiated a lawsuit over tax-exemption that established Secular Humanism as a religion under the law. The case involved denial of the Society’s application for tax exemption as a religious organization. The D.C. Circuit court reversed the Tax Court’s ruling, defined the Society as a religious organization, and granted its tax exemption. This was one of the earliest cases establishing the right of nontheistic institutions that function like churches to be treated similarly to theistic religious institutions under the law.

So what started out as seeing a sign on this bike ride turned into a lesson in which I learned more about yet another aspect of our extremely diverse and always interesting national capitol city. 

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