Update: Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed the “religious liberty” bill into law on April 5.
Three Cooperative Baptist Fellowship pastors are opposing Mississippi’s so-called “religious liberty” law, which would, among other things, allow public employees, businesses and social workers to deny services based on the belief that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman.
Rusty Edwards, pastor of University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Miss.; Bert Montgomery, pastor of University Baptist Church in Mississippi State, Miss.; and Stan Wilson, pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., wrote Gov. Phil Bryant April 1 urging him to veto House Bill 1523, titled the “Religious Liberty Accommodations Act.”
Supporters say the bill protects people from government interference when practicing their religious beliefs. The Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC’s public policy arm, termed it “an exemplary model for public policy” post last summer’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
Wilson, however, said he thinks the bill, authored by Southern Baptist layman and House Speaker Phillip Gunn, is not good public policy.
“Any law that threatens the livelihood of real people is bad public policy,” Wilson said. “More to the point, as a pastor, I believe it is a failure of Christian witness.”
“It is aimed at protecting Christians from being forced to welcome or serve, much less embrace, their LGBT neighbors,” Wilson said. “But we are called, by Jesus, to love and serve our neighbor. We have not been sent into this world to fear or demonize any of God’s children. This bill endangers the well-being of some of our most vulnerable friends and family.”
The three pastors, who two years ago opposed earlier “religious freedom” legislation criticized as anti-gay, said they worry “that people we know and love will face increasing hostility and potential discrimination as a result of this bill.”
“We have each counseled people who have experienced exclusion, and we know what serious damage can be done to the soul by perceived messages of hostility,” they said. “We urge caution in signing any legislation that would affect the dignity and wellbeing of individuals.”
“As Baptist clergy, we are committed to working for religious liberty for all people and for the principles of a free church in a free state,” the ministers said. “To that end we worry when legislators begin defining religious convictions for us, and we are concerned that this bill will, inadvertently, weaken our structures of religious liberty.”
The pastors said 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.”
They urged the governor “to resist any intrusion of government into the practices of our churches” and urged him to veto HB 1523.