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Faith groups divest from fossil fuels, controversial companies

Religious institutions are adhering to the popular saying, "Put your money where your mouth is," by removing from their investment portfolios financial interests in companies involved in fossil fuel development and other controversial issues.

The "Go Fossil Free" campaign encourages the support of faith groups, noting on its website that "fossil fuel divestment is a moral argument, and religious institutions are uniquely positioned to make strong moral arguments."

The University of Dayton became the first Catholic university in America to divest from fossil fuels on Monday. According to a press release, the school's board of trustees unanimously approved the new investment policy that calls for divesting in coal and fossil fuels from financial holdings in stages, freeing up a $670 million investment pool for new commitments to "green and sustainable technologies."

The press release said that the decision "reflects the university's commitment to environmental sustainability, human rights and its religious mission."

"The University of Dayton is the 13th university or college to commit to fossil fuel divestment. Over 20 cities, 27 private foundations and more than 30 churches, congregations or dioceses have committed to divestment," eNews Park Forest reported.

The school's announcement follows a unanimous divestment decision by the board of trustees for Union Theological Seminary last week. "At Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, we have a particular call to live out our values in the world," wrote seminary president Serene Jones for Time.

"We realize that our endowment alone will hardly cause the fossil fuel giants to miss even half a heartbeat," he continued. "That said, it is on moral grounds that we pursue divestment, and on theological grounds that we trust it matters."

The Huffington Post reported that Union's efforts to support the environment will not end there. "As part of a larger green initiative the school will also work with students and environmental organizations to develop a sustainability policy for the campus."

Growing support for divestment from fossil fuels is evident within American religious denominations as churches consider how to invest their money in ways that align with their ethics. The United Church of Christ voted in July 2013 to begin a path to divestment, and Pope Francis has spoken of the need to defend the environment, Huffington Post reported.

At the denomination's biennial general assembly last week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to delay divestment from fossil fuels. Commissioners "chose instead to initiate a study" into the issue and revisit divestment in 2016, The Presbyterian Outlook reported.

"The denomination long ago divested funds from tobacco companies, gambling companies, some weapons manufacturing companies and others. Never before has divestment based solely out of concern and care for the environment been brought forward on a national level in the PC(USA)," the article continued.

However, in a separate vote the denomination agreed to rid its investment portfolio of companies with ties to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. By a narrow margin (310 in favor, 303 against), commissioners voted to "divest holdings worth roughly $21 million in Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions," Reuters reported.

The divestment decision "came after about a decade of debate and the rejection by two votes in 2012 of a similar measure. It was almost certainly the largest such commitment among U.S. church-group conventions," Reuters explained.

Religion News Service reported that the vote has the potential to upset an already fragile relationship between Presbyterians and the Jewish community. "The authors of the divestment resolution seemed to take pains to distance the measure from the more strident critics of Israel inside and outside the church. The resolution affirmed the church's support for a two-state solution," RNS's Lauren Markoe wrote.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas