By Bob Allen
The Southern Baptist Convention and Humane Society of the United States were among supporters of legislation cracking down on animal fighting in Tennessee signed into law June 11.
Russell Moore, head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, attended Gov. Bill Haslam’s ceremonial signing June 10 of House Bill 0962, a bipartisan measure making it a crime to cause a person under 18 years of age to attend an animal fight and increasing the penalty for being a spectator at an animal fight to up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Moore, who lobbied for the bill’s passage, hailed it as “an important step in our communities.”
“It’s not just a step away from the cruelty and savagery of animal fighting; it is a move away from the exploitation of the poor through expanded gambling,” Moore said in comments to Baptist Press. “By raising the penalties for animal fighting, Tennessee is making a strong statement that it takes seriously both the humane treatment of animals and the dignity of those whom organized gambling would like to exploit.”
In March Moore sent a letter to Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) expressing “strong support” for increasing the deterrent to animal fighting.
“The ERLC holds the family as the foundation of culture and society,” Moore wrote. “With each passing year that the increased penalties fail to pass, we witness the incestuous relationship between animal fighting, gambling and organized crime continue to grow. This is detrimental to many of our communities and the families that call them home.”
“Unfortunately, Tennessee plays host to these conferences of nefarious activities because the punishment for dogfighting and cockfighting is a slap on the wrist in comparison to the payouts,” he continued.
“Gambling and animal fighting are societal ills that are each harmful to our communities on their own. However, when the two are combined, the result is individuals betting on the outcome of undeniable cruelty, and that is simply unacceptable.”
Leighann Lassiter, Tennessee state director for the Humane Society, termed ERLC support “instrumental in securing passage of the legislation.”
“The General Assembly has spoken loud and clear, and the message is: Tennessee will no longer be a refuge for anyone who sets animals against each other in fights to the death,” Lassiter said when the bill passed both houses by nearly unanimous votes in April.
The Washington Post reported earlier this year that the Humane Society has been working for three years with a group of evangelical leaders on a statement about animal ethics due out in October. The effort is part of an effort to change attitudes about an issue typically viewed as a liberal concern and correct misreading of God’s command in Genesis 1 that humans should have dominion over the earth at the expense of creation care.
“The attitude by some that the idea that humans and animals are equal in value makes evangelicals nervous,” explained Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research. “But there’s a diminishing attitude that humans are free to do as they please with animals.”
In January Duke penned an article for the ERLC website titled 10 biblical truths about animals, arguing that animals “have the capacity to enjoy life” and “may have a more acute awareness of spiritual reality than we realize.”
“God put animals on the planet and gave them a mandate as well,” Duke wrote. “Part of the human calling is to help them fulfill this mandate in a way that enables them to reach their full potential in creation. They not only enrich our lives. They point to the creator of all things. Animals are not only worthy of our respect. They deserve it.”
While he isn’t among those who believe animals go to heaven when they die, Duke said both Paul and the prophet Isaiah hint that animals were part of God’s original design for creation and may well be part of his eternal design as well.
A new video on the ERLC website features a 13-minute interview about why Christians should care about the ethical treatment of animals with Randy Alcorn, author of more than 40 books and founder of Eternal Perspective Ministries in Sandy, Ore.
The animal fighting bill was among about 50 bills “signed” by the governor in an annual ceremony attended by about 200 people lining up for photo opportunities described by The Tennessean as “part pomp and circumstance, part cattle call.”
Other legislation signed by the governor included legalizing the use of cannabis oil for limited medical purposes, making it a felony to intentionally kill a police, fire or search-and-rescue animal and imposing a 48-hour waiting period for abortions.
It isn’t the ERLC’s first foray into animal rights. Moore’s predecessor, Richard Land, supported a bill in 2012 making it a felony to own or use a bird for cockfighting in South Carolina.