The British Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton once said that America is “the only nation founded on a creed.” I wonder if that’s why the great Virginia Baptist John Leland opposed ratifying the United States Constitution, forcing James Madison’s father to write a letter imploring him to talk to to Leland and gain his support. By all accounts, Leland opposed the Constitution not because it was a creed, but because it lacked critical language protecting and enshrining religious liberty as a right for all citizens.
Partially because of Leland’s influence, Madison framed the Bill of Rights to protect these most basic human rights, including the free exercise of religion and liberty of conscience. Nearly two-hundred and twenty-five years later, lawmakers again find themselves wrestling with this most basic freedom and perhaps unsurprisingly, Baptists are still in the mix.
This week I joined a diverse group of clergy–many fellow Baptists–as well as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Independents, Rabbis and lay leaders at the Georgia State Capitol to voice opposition to House Bill 29, a version of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” which has passed in several other state legislatures and which illegitimately claims ancestral heritage from the Federal RFRA passed by Congress in 1993.
As a Baptist, I feel certain John Leland would read this bill carefully, as I, and so many other ministers and faith leaders are around the country. On its face, “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” sounds like something Baptists would and should support. The implicit language, however, suggests restoring something that was never destroyed in the first place.
I remember in school learning that individual rights are guaranteed in the United States Constitution and my rights end where yours begin. It’s a very simple, yet radical premise. According to Georgia’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that personal liberty may be widely interpreted corporately, with the current bill allowing for business owners to oppose government mandated regulations, practices and even civil and human rights laws that go “against personal religious principles”. Of course, integration, interracial marriage, and women’s suffrage were also once cited as forces that went “against religious principles”.
In a cruel twist of irony, people claiming a faith which unequivocally states “Love thy neighbor” will, under the guise of “restoring religious freedom” be able to discriminate, spurn and subjugate others. Individual religious freedom when magnified to this institutional level exchanges openness for narrow-mindedness, diversity for uniformity and tolerance for discrimination.
As I left the meeting at the Georgia State Capital, I passed others who were campaigning for House Bill 29–many of them ministers, some of whom I have known for years. Walking out my friend and colleague who serves the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church said “It’s really crazy when you think about it. These folks are saying that their religion ought to guarantee them the right not to serve you, not to work with you, not have to deal with you in business–and these are the people worshipping someone who got killed for loving everybody.”
In October of 1960 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested, along with 59 students at the Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, only three miles from my house. At a store where my grandparents recount the pained experience of watching African American mothers direct their children to “the other water fountain”, Dr. King and these courageous students approached the Magnolia Tea Room Restaurant and asked to be served. When the restaurant refused to serve them they calmly remained seated and continued to place their orders.
In October of 2014 my wife and our son enjoyed a late fall getaway to St. Simons Island, one of Georgia’s beautiful coastal islands. As we watched our son laugh and play in the surf, “catching waves” and looking for sand crabs at sunset one evening, a couple walked toward the water and spread a towel near us. They looked around sheepishly, always taking stock of who was nearby, and eventually held hands and occasionally draped an arm around another, taking turns as young couples do. I watched as a man and his family walked through the surf nearby. As they approached the couple, the father quickly led his wife and children up into the sand, far away from where we were. Once they were out of area, they walked back down into the surf, resuming their set pattern. It was painfully obvious that this family had chosen to avoid the lovely couple next to us. I am embarrassed to say it occurred to me for the first time the acute pressure felt by my LGBT friends and colleagues.
There are a number of similarities in these two October experiences, but I am proud to say that as of this day, willful segregation of businesses and institutions is no longer the law of the land–but if we don’t act, it may happen again with frightening immediacy. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Georgia effectively repeals all laws to the contrary, meaning that discrimination against a person or group of people would be constitutionally defensible in the State of Georgia under the heinous guise of “religious freedom”.
It is difficult to speak unilaterally with regard to the beliefs of multiple faith traditions, and yet “Love thy neighbor” seems to be a tangible goal. Protecting the right to discriminate, to refuse service, to deny benefits or to marginalize any human being seems to be the very antithesis of that noble ideal.
It was the great Baptist John Leland who said, “The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [Muslims], Pagans and Christians. “
It would be nearly two hundred years later that another Baptist preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his letter to Judge Webb refusing to let others post his bail after being arrested at the Magnolia Tea Room would write “Our actions grow out of a deep seated concern for the moral health of our community. We have not been motivated by some foreign ideology-communistic or any other. We did it because of our love for America.”
It is that same love for America and for our communities, for our strong, vital American ideal of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, shaped, forged, challenged and tempered by a long history of Baptist pastors and prophets, I submit that to affirm the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of Georgia is to attempt to discriminate against our neighbor rather than to love them. It is against the freedom we Baptisst hold most dear, against the voices of history that have gone before us and against the Savior we worship who laid down his life in love for all humanity, not just a select few. May we be so bold as to spurn the deceptive calls to fear and insularity and find the moral courage to love our neighbor as ourselves and withstand all forces–legislative or otherwise–that prevent us from honoring that sacred call.
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