By Bob Allen
Baptist signers including ABPnew/Herald columnists Amy Butler and David Gushee were among more than 350 clergy leaders across the United States opposing a bill in Mississippi that critics say would legalize discrimination by commercial businesses throughout the state.
On Wednesday the Mississippi House delayed a vote on the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, turning it over to a committee for study before sending it back to the Senate.
The bill, passed by the Senate in January with little debate, prohibits the state from substantially burdening an individual’s free exercise of religion, defined as including “the ability to act or the refusal to act in a manner that is substantially motivated by one’s sincerely held religious belief.”
Observers say the bill’s ultimate impact is unclear, but debate over the measure has been polarized around the issue of same-sex marriage. Opponents say it would allow businesses to refuse services to the LGBT community on the basis of religious freedom, earning it the nickname the “Turn Away the Gays” bill.
The Mississippi Baptist Convention’s lobbying group, the Christian Action Commission, supports the bill, saying it isn’t about discrimination but restoring religious freedoms taken away by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1990s. One reason outside groups like the ACLU oppose it, claims an email on the CAC website, is they want to repeal an amendment to the Mississippi constitution banning same-sex marriage approved by 86 percent of voters in 2004.
On March 12, clergy, evangelical leaders and scholars including Progressive National Baptist Convention President-elect James C. Perkins weighed in, denouncing the bill as echoing Mississippi’s segregated past.
“These misguided efforts eerily echo Jim Crow laws that robbed African-Americans of their basic human dignity,” said a statement released through Faith in Public Life. “Businesses once barred not only blacks, but also Jews and Asians from buying homes in certain neighborhoods or eating in restaurants even after Supreme Court rulings overturned segregation laws.”
Signers said they do not want to allow faith to be used in the service of discrimination.
“When we seek to codify legislation that discriminates against any class of people — no matter our diverse theological beliefs about marriage — we tarnish the treasure of religious freedom and the highest ideals of our democracy,” they said. “Most of all, we are complicit in violating the Golden Rule that unites us as Christians — to love God and our neighbor as we love ourselves.”
In addition to Butler, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, and Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, other Baptist signers include Kendrick Curry, senior pastor of The Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Washington; Nathan Mahand, college minister at Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas; Dale Nixon, pastor of discipleship at Terry Parker Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla.; and Layne Smith, an interim transition specialist in Hendersonville, N.C., currently serving Huguenot Road Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.