By Bob Allen
A Baptist newspaper editor compared perceived discrimination against Christians in the 21st century to the 1960s struggle for civil rights in comments at a Georgia statehouse rally Jan. 28 quoted by local media.
Gerald Harris, editor of the Christian Index newspaper, said at a rally supporting proposed religious-liberty legislation that a war is being waged against religious liberty.
“It is a war on religious liberty, and it appears to me that those who are targeted are not Muslims, nor the Hindus, nor the Jews, nor the Buddhists,” Harris said in comments quoted by Georgia Voice, a biweekly LGBT newspaper with a website updated continuously. “It seems in particular it’s the Christians, and this is what concerns us so much today, because as we have already heard, this nation was founded on Christian principles.”
Harris compared the situation to the African-American struggle for civil rights half a century ago.
“Some have said that this is going to be the next civil-rights battle of this generation,” he said. “Many of us were around in the 1960s and there was a civil-rights battle waged primarily by black Americans. Many white Americans sat out on that to our shame. I am grateful that both black and white Christians and Americans have joined together to engage in this battle.”
Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, said that despite “fear mongering” by opponents, there is “not one single shred of evidence of discrimination” in the proposed legislation.
“If there is discrimination in this country, quite honestly, it has been against people of faith, and it must stop,” White said. “Our nation was founded upon the free exercise of religion, and that freedom must be guaranteed in the state of Georgia.”
“This law cannot be used to discriminate against another,” White said. “May we deal harshly with those who choose such a path. That is not who we are. We are one people under God with liberty and justice for all.”
Harris and White spoke at a press conference held the same day that a smaller group of Baptists also addressed media at the Georgia Capitol saying the proposed law is unneeded and likely would have unintended consequences, including litigation.
David Cooke, a district attorney and deacon at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Ga., said in a recent newspaper op-ed that he fears the proposed House Bill 29 could allow a person to ignore child welfare laws by claiming “deeply held religious beliefs.”
Cooke, a member of the board of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said the idea is not far-fetched, based on his own experience with high-profile a case he once worked involving 11 members of an Atlanta church indicted on child abuse charges after their pastor told them it was OK for them to beat their children.
Arthur Allen, pastor of the House of Prayer in Atlanta, spent two years in prison, from 2003 to 2005, for having children at his church whipped with belts. Forty-one children ranging in age from infants to 17 were taken from their families and put in foster care amid allegations that when they misbehaved they were taken to church for discipline organized by the pastor, where two or three adults would hold them down while others beat them until the pastor told them to stop.
Allen died at age 81 in a house fire believed to have been caused by faulty wiring in 2013.
Cooke said one Georgia couple already has tried to use religion to justify the murder of their 8-year-old son, who died after being whipped with footlong glue sticks, locked in a closet and ordered to pray to a picture of Jesus.
“Imagine all they ways a child could be harmed with this new law,” Cooke said. “Imagine all the creative ways lawyers could make it tougher for police and other law enforcement officers. Could parents legally withhold critically important medical care from a child, or justify physical or mental abuse if they claim their religion compels them to do so? Could a 12-year-old girl be forced into marriage pursuant to her parents’ religious beliefs?
“We do not need a new law in Georgia that would make it any more difficult to convict child abusers. We do not need this proposed legislation.”