By Bob Allen
More than 200 people gathered Aug. 11 in a Southern Baptist church in Fayetteville, Ark., to rally against a proposed civil rights ordinance that opponents say poses a threat to religious liberty.
The rally at University Baptist Church featured Aaron and Melissa Klein, owners of an Oregon bakery fined $135,000 for discrimination after refusing to bake a cake for a lesbian wedding. Protect Fayetteville, the group that organized the rally, says Ordinance 5781, up for voter approval in a special election Sept. 8, could result in similar “religious persecution” against people of conscience who own businesses in northwest Arkansas.
“Under this ordinance, any baker, florist or photographer, event planner, printer, etc. who has a deeply held religious objection to forced participation in same-sex weddings could face prosecution if they decline to photograph, decorate a cake or provide a floral arrangement for a same-sex ceremony, reception or event,” the group states on a website. “This includes forcing ministers to perform same-sex weddings.”
“We have already seen these scenarios play out with photographers, bakers and florists in Oregon, Washington State, New Mexico and Colorado,” the group says. “In each case, Christians who simply wanted to do business without being forced to engage in activity that violates their faith (i.e. a same-sex wedding ceremony) have been sued, fined, bankrupted and threatened with jail time. This ordinance will bring these same persecutions to Fayetteville.”
The Fayetteville City Council voted 6-2 on June 16 to pass on to voters an ordinance extending protection in existing anti-discrimination laws to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens and visitors. Critics say the Uniform Civil Rights Protection Ordinance largely rehashes an earlier civil rights ordinance approved last year by aldermen but later repealed by voters 52 percent to 48 percent.
“It’s not much different than the first one, Ron Lomax, director of missions for Washington Madison Baptist Association, said in the July 16 edition of Arkansas Baptist News. “It’s worded a little bit different, but the intent is the same. We’ll be encouraging our people to vote it down again.”
While the ordinance exempts churches and religious organizations, Lomax said it could force Christians who live and work outside of the church or religious organizations to do things contrary to their faith or suffer fines.
“Christians are not excluded,” Lomax said. “If you own a bakery or you are a florist or something, you would still be taken to court or fined for deciding not to do a wedding or something like that. So it doesn’t protect Christians.”
Protect Fayetteville says the measure would harm business and pose “serious safety concerns for women and children.”
“Ordinance 5781 requires that businesses and ‘non-religious’ organizations must allow males, claiming to be transgender, into all accommodations of the female sex, including bathrooms, changing areas, showers and overnight shelter areas such as in women’s shelters and youth camps,” the group says on its website. “A business owner, employee or organizational member who interferes with the so-called ‘right’ of a man to use female facilities can find himself or herself subject to criminal prosecution.”
“Women and girls do not want to be forced to see any man — including transgenders who believe they are women — undress in front of them in a locker room or restroom,” opponents claim. “They also don’t want to be confronted with a man coming into the shower or changing area when they are undressed. It is wrong to demand that all the women and the girls of Fayetteville suppress their feelings and their fears because City Hall wants to give men access to areas they have always enjoyed as private zones for females.”
University Baptist Church, an 1,800-member congregation with average attendance of 750 affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, recently concluded a seven-month search with the July 12 election of Brad Wheeler as senior pastor. Wheeler, currently associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., begins his ministry in Fayetteville Aug. 23.
University Baptist Church elders introduced Wheeler, 40, a former Unitarian with two master’s degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., as “the right hand man to [Capitol Hill] Senior Pastor Mark Dever.” Dever, an author and conference speaker who directs 9Marks ministries, is a leading Southern Baptist figure in the growing interest in Calvinist theology with followers nicknamed the Young, Restless, Reformed.