By Bob Allen
Five Baptist and Methodist pastors have sent an open letter urging Mississippi legislators to defeat a bill, similar to one recently vetoed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, that is headed for the House of Representatives for debate in the next few days.
The House Judiciary Committee amended the Mississipppi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which passed the Senate unanimously Jan. 31, to address concerns that it would allow businesses to refuse services to the LGBT community on the basis of religious freedom.
Language defining religious exercise 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” prompted some to nickname the legislation the “Turn Away the Gays” bill.
Pastors Stan Wilson of Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, Bert Montgomery of University Baptist Church in Starkville and Rusty Edwards of University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg joined Methodist pastors Rob Hill of Jackson and Bruce Case of Madison, saying their opposition to Senate Bill 2681 “rises out of our moral obligation to do what is best for our communities.”
The three Baptist congregations are part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Jimmy Porter, director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention-affiliated Christian Action Commission, endorsed the bill in an e-mail to lawmakers.
“This bill as it passed the Senate protects the religious freedom of Mississippians and business owners from discrimination and intolerance,” Porter said in the message picked up March 2 on a blog that follows Mississippi politics.
Porter said the bill is now in jeopardy in the House, “where pressure from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) lobby, the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU, AT&T and the MS Economic Council are working to kill the bill or to remove parts of the bill that will provide equal religious protection.”
“Removing these provisions would provide a loophole so that if the ACLU and other like-minded organizations sue a business owner, that person could not use RFRA as a religious liberty defense,” Porter warned.
The three Baptist and two Methodist ministers described themselves as “ardent supporters of religious freedom for all Americans” and committed to do all in their power to defend it.
“However, we also know that there is a difference between sacred space and commercial space,” they said. “When providing a service to the public, businesses cannot pick and choose whom to serve and whom to deny. This is basic discrimination and it has nothing to do with religious freedom.”
The clergy predicted the bill would “have immense and negative consequences on all communities, including religious communities.”
“First, it sends the message that one’s particular religious interpretation can become the law of the land,” they said. “Second, as religious leaders we know that families are harmed when legislation unfairly opens up members of our communities to discrimination. As a state, we know we can do better than that.”
“As Methodists and Baptists, we may not always agree on all things, but we can agree that this bill goes too far and is unnecessary,” they concluded. “Because we are people who are called to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves,’ we ask Mississippi legislators to reject Senate Bill 2681.”