Georgia Baptists acknowledge the religious liberty bill passed by their state legislature isn’t perfect. But they’re urging their state’s governor to sign it despite his hints of a veto and threats from the (National Football League) NFL that adopting the measure could disqualify Atlanta from hosting the Super Bowl.
The Georgia Baptist Mission Board has been “trying to communicate to our pastors and churches the importance of making sure their members … contact the governor by way of email, by way of letters, by way of phone contacts” to express their support for the Free Exercise Protection Act, said Mike Griffin, the Mission Board’s public affairs representative. “We’re seeing a lot of that now.”
Griffin, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, added Georgia Baptist leaders are encouraging prayer that Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, will sign the bill, which passed the legislature March 16 and combines elements of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a First Amendment Defense Act and a Pastor Protection Act.
Among other provisions, the bill would permit business owners to decline participation in same-sex weddings if doing so violates their sincerely held religious beliefs. The measure also would protect faith-based organizations that support traditional marriage from being denied government benefits because of their convictions, Griffin said.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, took issue with the legislation’s final language, arguing it “waters down a religious freedom bill that had real force.”
Specifically, The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson and Roger Severino wrote in an online commentary that “the bill provides Religious Freedom Restoration Act levels of protection for certain protected persons, but it explicitly says these protections cannot apply in cases of ‘invidious discrimination.’” By leaving “invidious” undefined, the measure opens itself to anti-Christian interpretations by activists judges, Anderson and Severino argued.
Additionally, the section protecting faith-based organizations from government discrimination covers only “churches, religious schools and ‘integrated auxiliaries,’” Anderson and Severino wrote, leaving some religious organizations unprotected.
The Heritage Foundation authors alleged the bill “provides no protection for bakers or florists or other similar wedding professionals.” However, Griffin said it allows courts to give such individuals “injunctive relief” while not granting them standing to sue the government “for monetary damages.”
Deal told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) enacting the religious liberty bill was “not on my agenda.” The governor then noted his status as a Southern Baptist and a Mercer University graduate before offering a theological argument on tolerance.
“We have a belief in forgiveness and that we do not have to discriminate unduly against anyone on the basis of our own religious beliefs,” Deal said of Christians. “We are not jeopardized, in my opinion, by those who believe differently from us. We are not, in my opinion, put in jeopardy by virtue of those who might hold different beliefs or who may not even agree with what our Supreme Court said the law of the land is on the issue of same-sex marriage. I do not feel threatened by the fact that people who might choose same-sex marriages pursue that route.”
Deal said he personally believes in “traditional marriage” between a man and a woman, the AJC reported.
Under state law, Deal has until May 3 to sign or veto the religious liberty bill. If he takes no action, it will become law automatically.
Gerald Harris, editor of Georgia Baptists’ Christian Index newsjournal, wrote in a March 10 editorial that Deal “is dead wrong to stand in the way of a religious liberty bill … that will insure freedom for all people of faith.” Responding to Deal’s theological analysis, Harris argued God’s love “must be balanced with His justice.”
“In our society,” Harris wrote, “there are many good, well-meaning people whose characterization of God’s love is a love that only exhorts but never exposes, restores but never rebukes, comforts but never confronts, consoles but never corrects. It is a love that has no foundation in truth, justice and righteousness. In order to truly love God, you must also hate sin, wickedness and unrighteousness. True love cannot function without hate.”
Super Bowl to be denied?
Meanwhile, some businesses – including the NFL, Coca Cola, Apple and Intel – urged Deal to veto the religious liberty bill. The NFL suggested enacting the measure could remove Atlanta from contention to host the 2019 or 2020 Super Bowl, CBS News reported.
Atlanta’s professional sports franchises – the Falcons, Braves and Hawks – all have opposed the bill along with the NCAA, according to The Washington Post.
State Sen. Greg Kirk, the bill’s senate sponsor, told Baptist Press “the NFL needs to stick to football and let lawmakers make laws.”
Georgia is America’s “number one place to do business” and has “done everything the NFL has asked,” including exempting Super Bowl tickets from state sales tax and building a new stadium, said Kirk, a former Southern Baptist pastor.
State Rep. Kevin Tanner, a House sponsor of the bill, said protecting religious liberty will not harm businesses.
Georgia is “set up for businesses to operate and flourish here in the state,” said Tanner, a Southern Baptist deacon. “Offering this protection to our citizens is not going to hurt the business community in any way, and they know that. … This is an opportunity for publicity and for them to attract folks to the fact that they’re diverse and they’re open.”
Religious freedom ‘critical’
Georgia Baptist Convention President Thomas Hammond, pastor of First Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Ga., said it would be “disappointing … for all Americans to lose any freedoms they have enjoyed for over 200 years simply because of the wishes of a very small and vocal minority.”
“It is difficult,” Hammond said in written comments, “to realize how critical all freedoms are, including the freedom of religion, for our pursuit of happiness and the sustainability of our society until we lose them. Sadly, by then it would be too late.”
For Jerry Vines, a former Southern Baptist Convention president with a Georgia-based preaching ministry, the decision to protect religious liberty or bow to business leaders is a choice of spirituality versus materialism.
“I pray our leaders in Georgia don’t make the same tragic mistake Judas did, choosing the material over the spiritual, Satan over the Savior,” Vines said. “Thirty pieces of silver bought Judas a ticket to Hell.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)