The Jan. 2 edition of the Biblical Recorder (BR) outlines news highlights that defined 2015. The stories, chosen by BR staff, communicate the events that affected the lives of North Carolina Baptists and others around the world. The year was loaded with news about important cultural events that Christians everywhere should consider.
Tax exemption debated – Tax exemption for religious institutions came under public scrutiny in 2015, in large part due to a TIME Magazine editorial, written by Mark Oppenheimer. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., hosted Oppenheimer on his podcast, Thinking in Public. Oppenheimer’s main concern is the burden that tax exempt institutions place – by not paying property taxes – on nearby middle and lower class residents. Mohler questioned the rights of government to lay claim on Christian institutions via financial obligations.
Court rules against religious groups in contraception case – The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 14 that religious employers must comply with federally mandated employee health coverage – which includes all FDA-approved contraceptive services – because the mandate does not present a substantial burden to religious exercise or violate First Amendment rights. The case was subsequently appealed and now awaits a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Churches encouraged to tighten policies, avoid lawsuits – Christiana Holcomb, litigation counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said churches that do not have specific and clear policies leave “gray areas that can be exploited. The rapidly changing culture in America is placing an increasing amount of scrutiny on church policies, especially policies about membership, employment and facility use. Brian Davis, associate executive director-treasurer for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, said courts might become involved any time a member is denied a specific right – such as the denial of congregational voting privileges in church discipline – especially if the process deviates from a church’s written procedures.
Marriage & sexuality
U.S. Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide – Supreme Court justices ruled in a 5-4 decision June 26 that same-sex marriage is a 14th Amendment right, effectively legalizing the practice in all 50 states. The ruling sparked a series of discrimination lawsuits against business owners and civil magistrates who oppose same-sex marriage for sincerely held religious beliefs.
Atlanta fire chief dismissed over pro-family book – Kelvin Cochran, Atlanta Fire Chief, was terminated in January for writing a book that claims homosexual behavior is immoral. A city investigation revealed no discriminatory wrongdoing in Cochran’s public service role but the mayor said his “actions and decision-making undermine his ability.” Cochran has filed a lawsuit against Atlanta saying his speech is protected under the First Amendment.
Charlotte City Council votes down LGBT ordinance – In a contentious meeting on March 2, the Charlotte City Council voted down a proposed city ordinance that would establish sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as legally protected categories. Opponents of the measure said it would place undue burden on privately owned businesses, exposing them to lawsuits and infringing upon their First Amendment rights.
Houston voters defeat controversial equal rights ordinance – An 18-month legal battle that included appeals and two Texas Supreme Court decisions ended with Houston residents voting against a measure called Proposition 1 that would have required businesses and public areas to permit individuals to use the restroom of the gender with which they identify.
Racism discussed nationally – “The cross and the Confederate battle flag cannot coexist, without one setting the other on fire,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, at a first annual summit, held March 26-27 in Nashville, Tenn. Trip Lee, hip-hop artist and author, said, “You cannot love others if you dismiss or ignore their experience.” Joel Kurz, pastor of The Garden Church in Baltimore, Md., led cleanup teams after violent protests erupted in April. Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American, died April 19 of injuries sustained while in police custody. Coming after a string of high profile African-American deaths allegedly at the hands of law enforcement, Gray’s fate sparked outrage in Baltimore, which is known for its hostility between residents and law enforcement. Walter Strickland, special advisor to the president for diversity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “It’s time for God’s people to gather together and mend what Christ died to heal.” He addressed a crowd Jan. 22 at a community dialogue hosted jointly by SEBTS and The Town of Wake Forest.
Abedini’s imprisonment continues – American pastor Saeed Abedini remains in an Iranian prison, where he was detained for his Christian faith in 2012. In early 2015 Abedini witnessed six of his fellow prisoners being beaten and taken away for execution. Evangelicals petitioned the U.S. government to leverage a deal with Iran over nuclear proliferation to secure the release of Abedini and other American prisoners, but the detainees were left out of the agreement. Abedini’s wife suspended her highly publicized advocacy for his release in November due to marital difficulties, citing “physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse” by her husband.
Syrian refugee crisis sparks controversy – The Obama administration announced in September that U.S. refugee resettlement agencies would be accepting 10,000 refugees from Syria in 2016, due to the humanitarian crisis created by civil war in the country. A November terror attack in Paris, France turned the policy into a controversy when many began to oppose the resettlement of Syrians to the U.S. on account of potential terrorism on U.S. soil. Others, such as Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Nathan Lino, president of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, took a more balanced approach that promoted mercy ministry toward incoming refugees while considering national security.
Terrorism on the rise – Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old white male, entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., during a prayer service, killing nine African-American Christians. Islamic terrorists organized a widespread attack Nov. 14 at more than a half-dozen locations across Paris, using automatic weapons and homemade bombs to kill nearly 150 and wound many more. A shooter, 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear, attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., Nov. 27, taking the lives of three people and injuring nine others. Nearly 20 people were killed at a medical service facility in San Bernardino, Calif., Dec. 3 when two Islamic State supporters opened fire at a Christmas party.
Natural disasters strike – A 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal April 25, followed by another quake nearly as powerful just over two weeks later. Thousands of Nepali residents were killed and thousands more displaced. Southern Baptist relief teams responded immediately, providing medical and recovery aid. Hurricane Joaquin struck the coast of South Carolina in October, prompting disaster relief teams from across the nation to join rebuilding efforts. More than 2,500 North Carolina Baptist Men volunteers (or Baptists on Mission) utilized their skills and hard work to aid flood victims. 2015 also marked the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest disaster in U.S. history. The hurricane left its mark on the Gulf Coast and taught Baptist relief teams lessons they’ll never forget.
Sanctity of life
Planned Parenthood makes headlines for selling aborted fetal parts – Videos were released in mid-2015 that showed Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) representatives and personnel discussing the harvesting and sale of aborted fetal parts. A medical watchdog group, Center for Medical Progress, filmed the interactions covertly. Videos also included graphic images of PPFA staff examining dismembered fetuses.
North Carolina passes 72-hour abortion wait period – North Carolina legislators approved a bill June 3 in a 32-16 vote that extends the state’s abortion waiting period to 72 hours, joining four other states that have passed similar legislation. The bill also requires medical professionals to inform a woman before she obtains an abortion that alternatives exist.