More than 50 Southern Baptist ministers in Mississippi recently issued an open letter supporting a new law which purports to protect religious liberty but is widely-described as the country’s most aggressive anti-LGBT legislation.
Baptist pastors including current and past presidents of the Mississippi Baptist Pastors Conference signed a May 21 op-ed in The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., endorsing HB 1523, titled the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” signed into law April 5 but challenged by two lawsuits claiming it discriminates against gays and lesbians.
Citing pressure from the federal government “to force conformity to a new series of social agendas,” the ministers said “it seems necessary that our state officials pass legislation aimed to protect all people of faith from discrimination and restrict the state government from imposing undue pressure upon people of faith.”
The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, a Southern Baptist layman and former chair of the board of trustees at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, allows public employees, businesses and social workers to deny services based on the belief that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman.
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission has denounced the measure as part of “a larger, alarming trend to limit the civil rights of a class of people using religious beliefs as the excuse.”
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention called HB 1523 “an exemplary model for public policy” in light of conflicts involving small business owners who deny services to same-sex couples for religious reasons in the wake of last summer’s Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.
Three pastors aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship came out against the bill in April, saying it would weaken religious liberty by allowing the government to intrude “into the practices of our churches.”
Pastors Rusty Edwards of University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Miss., Bert Montgomery of University Baptist Church in Mississippi State, Miss., and Stan Wilson of Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., said in an open letter April 1 they are convinced “that churches and believers are fully capable of standing up for their own convictions and already possess the right to free exercise of their faith.”
A lawsuit filed May 9 by the American Civil Liberties Union claims HB 1523 is unconstitutional because it creates “separate and unequal laws applying only to the marriage of same-sex couples.” Government attorneys are opposing that challenge, along with another suit filed May 10 by the Campaign for Southern Equality.
Clarion-Ledger contributing columnist Gary Pettus opined May 30 that the 56 Baptist ministers voicing support for HB 1523 “have come down on the wrong side of history,” similar to white ministers who supported segregation during the civil rights movement.
“But Jim Crow has now come out of the closet as Gay Crow,” Pettus said.