Baptists from across Georgia speak out against divisive “religious freedom” legislation
Atlanta, GA – A group of prominent Georgia Baptist clergy gathered at the State Capitol Wednesday to speak out against proposed legislation labeled “religious freedom” bills. Citing their faith, the group called on lawmakers to not pass the legislation. An opposing group from the Georgia Baptist Convention spoke at the Capitol in favor of the potentially discriminatory bills.
“Religious liberty is important to Baptists around the world and here in Georgia,” said Rev. Julie Pennington-Russellof First Baptist Church of Decatur. “But it doesn’t give us a right to discriminate. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am called to treat every human being the way I would want to be treated.”
“I am for religious liberty and for religious freedom, but I am not for this bill,” said Rev. Timothy McDonald III of First Iconium Baptist Church. “I believe this bill will have unintended consequences. I worked on the federal RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] in 1993. But this is not 1993.”
“No one voice, no one denomination speaks for all people of faith,” said Rev. Dr. James Lamkin of Northside Drive Baptist Church. “Georgia’s citizens and elected officials need to decide if they want to move forward or take our state back in time. As a Georgia Baptist, I do not want discrimination to happen in my name. Everyone has a right to their religious beliefs, but nobody has the right to discriminate. This is Atlanta, the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t teach hate here.”
The group is a fraction of the more than 160 clergy from many different denominations across Georgia who signed a letter released at the beginning of the legislative session that urged legislators not to pass these discriminatory, unnecessary “religious freedom” bills.
The press conference was part of an ongoing campaign by Georgia clergy to prevent passage of controversial “religious freedom” bills.
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On eve of March for Life rally, prominent Catholic leaders challenge “pro-life” members of Congress to pass immigration reform
Washington, DC – A prominent group of Catholic leaders is sending a message to their fellow Catholics in the House of Representatives who identity as “pro-life” on the eve of a national anti-abortion rally in Washington.
“As Catholics committed to building a culture of life, we write to urge our fellow Catholics in Congress to support the U.S. bishops’ efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” more than 100 Catholic university presidents, priests, nuns, theologians and immigration policy experts write today in a statement released by the Washington-based organization Faith in Public Life.
“Our nation’s inhumane and flawed immigration policies leave migrant women, children and families abandoned by the side of the road,” the letter reads.
The statement will be sent to Catholics in the House, and will also appear as a full-page ad in Politico on Thursday. Nearly a third of all members of Congress are Catholic – the largest religious denomination represented on the Hill.
While the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, the House has failed to vote on a comprehensive package, and last week voted to block funding for President Obama’s executive orders on immigration. House Speaker John Boehner supported the measure to defund the president’s action to offer deferrals to immigrants brought to the United States as children.
The president of Speaker Boehner’s alma mater, Xavier University in Cincinnati, was among the signers of the statement. Other prominent signers included Helen Alvare, professor at George Mason University School of Law, an adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a former USCCB pro-life spokeswoman; Father Larry Snyder, outgoing president of Catholic Charities USA; retired Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston and retired Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., both former presidents of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Rev. Timothy Kesicki, S.J., President of the Jesuit Conference USA, Rev. James Greenfield, OSFS, President of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and Sr. Sharon Holland, President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
There are more than two dozen Catholics in the House who identity as pro-life, and some will attend the March for tomorrow in Washington. The statement directly appeals to them.
“As brothers and sisters in faith, we urge these elected officials and all Catholics to defend the sanctity of human lives at all stages,” the letter reads. “We recognize the image of God in the migrant at the border, in the prisoner on death row, in the pregnant woman and in the hungry child.”
“We fail a basic moral test and will never build a true culture of life if we keep turning our backs on immigrants relegated to the shadows,” said Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America. “Catholic lawmakers who are proud of their pro-life record but who fail to act on comprehensive immigration reform have a particular responsibility to consider their Church’s teachings on this urgent moral issue.”
The full statement and list of signatories can be found here. The Politico ad can be viewed here. Signers’ affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.
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Pope Francis is arguably the most compelling leader in the world today. Unless you’re one of those hyperventilating Fox News pundits or a certain American cardinal pining for the good old days of pray-pay-and-obey Catholicism, chances are you stand in awe of how quickly Francis has resuscitated an ancient institution nearly on life support after decades of clergy abuse scandals and the first resignation of a pope in six centuries.
The pope isn’t a traditional politician, but he is a savvy global leader who understands optics and the art of diplomacy. Simply put, this is a man with political and moral capital to burn. His decisive role in helping President Barack Obama strike a historic rapprochement with Cuba was the latest signal that the Vatican is back as a formidable geopolitical player. The Catholic church, of course, began navigating political currents, both secular and ecclesiastical, centuries before our American republic was a glimmer in the eye of Thomas Jefferson and Co. In traditional Catholic teaching, “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains. Or, as Pope Francis phrased it a bit more colorfully in one morning homily: “A good Catholic meddles in politics.”
As Obama prepares to give his State of the Union address tonight, I can’t help wondering what Pope Francis would say to Congress and the American people if handed the microphone. The idea is not as crazy as it might sound. House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, both Catholics, invited the pope to address a joint session of Congress during his visit to the United States in September. If Francis accepts the offer, which news reports this week suggest he will, it would be a first for a pope. Aware of the obvious chutzpah needed to try and channel this enigmatic and eloquent pope, here’s my take on what Francis might say to a polarized Congress and a nation in desperate need of moral vision.
I ask that you forgive my English. I know some of you speak Spanish, so if I have trouble, perhaps I even mix up my fútbol with your football, I will revert to my mother tongue, no? I am filled with joy to be in this beautiful country, a nation born of hope and ideals. All men are created equal! Through the fire of a civil war, your country held to that promise first given in faith by God and shed blood to overcome the sin of slavery. I think of the hands worn down by chains that built this magnificent Capitol building. Could those slaves have imagined someone with their skin color as president? The American story is about striving and struggle, of being lost and then finding a way through darkness. This is our human story. We are all on a journey. God gives us a destination and affirms our sacred dignity — even when we doubt it.
My brothers and sisters, our world is broken. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to listen knows this. We sometimes prefer to be blind and deaf to this reality. So many people discarded, thrown away into vast oceans of indifference. We no longer weep! On my drive here tonight, I saw men and women — also children — bundled in the cold. The sidewalk is their bed. The same is true in Rome. In Buenos Aires. In Bombay. A homeless woman dies in the gutter. Do we stop? The stock market moves an inch, and that is front-page news. These upside-down priorities tell us our culture is sick. How do we heal the wounds of loneliness, alienation and injustice? All of us in this chamber tonight are privileged. Let us use whatever power we have not to glorify ourselves or weave cocoons of comfort around our lives, but risk going out to the margins, to the peripheries where there is pain, anger, disillusion. It is good to be made uncomfortable.
“Woe to those who make unjust laws,” the prophet reminds us. Please do not forget the migrant who crosses the desert. She has a family and holds tight to dreams. Do not abandon the unborn in the womb. Justice and human rights are not served by defacing the image of God. Do not discard the elderly or think the dying are served by the false mercy of euthanasia. I beg you to use the great influence and wealth found in this mighty nation to serve the common good. Say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. Building a culture of life is impossible if workers can’t earn a living wage, pregnant women are denied the support they need, and families lack good health care. Some expect that wealth in the hands of the few will trickle down. This is a fantasy. The poor are still waiting! The market must serve human beings, not the other way around. The moral measure of your nation, any nation, is not judged by the stock value of corporations or the billions spent on weapons of war. Wealth is a gift, and that can be a good, but not when profit is made a god.
I ask you with special urgency: Do all that you can to protect the gift of creation! Human beings are destroying our environment. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his 2010 World Day of Peace message, said: “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers …” The growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees,” he said, must awaken our conscience and lead us to take action. We often speak today of rights. What about our responsibilities to each other? So many worship at the altar of individualism that we forget that human beings only flourish in community. Solidarity is a good word to remember. Listen again to one of your American prophets, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
As I leave you, I give my sincere appreciation for your commitment to public service. This is a true vocation. I pray that you will live up to its noble calling.
This essay originally appeared in the National Catholic Reporter on Jan. 20, 2015
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Dozens of diverse Georgia clergy cite faith, call on legislators to oppose discriminatory “religious freedom” legislation
Atlanta, GA – A diverse group of Georgia faith leaders gathered at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday to call on state legislators to oppose divisive “religious freedom” bills being proposed and introduced in the upcoming session of the state legislature.
The clergy announced the release of a letter signed by more than 60 religious leaders from across the state, warning state lawmakers about the dangerous potential for an increase in discrimination against people of all backgrounds.
“We strongly oppose giving for-profit corporations religious rights that could allow them to discriminate against employees based on any characteristic—from their religious practices to their sexual orientation. This principle harkens back to the civil rights movement and our nation’s core values of equality and justice,” the letter reads, in part.
“As a rabbi, I believe religious freedom is one of our most important freedoms,” said Rabbi Peter Berg, senior rabbi at The Temple. “But this bill gives people the right to harm others, and to do so in the name of religion. That is not religious freedom. That is discrimination. The faith community did not ask for this bill, and the faith community does not support this bill.”
“I am for religious freedom, and I am for religious responsibility” said Rev. James Lamkin, pastor at Northside Drive Baptist Church. “And I am against House Bill 29. I believe we can do this because we stand strong together on the ground of religious freedom.”
Rabbi Berg and Rev. Lamkin both worked to help pass the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which supporters of H.B. 29 claim their bill is based on.
“We believe that love of neighbor guides our standing today” said Rev. William Flippin, Jr., pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. “This RFRA bill infringes on ethics and our love of neighbor.”
The letter is the first action in a campaign by Georgia clergy from across the state to lobby against the passage of controversial “religious freedom” bills.
The full text of the letter is below. The complete list of signers can be found here. Signers’ affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.
As clergy and civil rights leaders, we are concerned to hear that some elected Georgia officials plan to introduce a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA), a bill that could result in discrimination and have many unintended consequences.
As faith leaders from diverse traditions, we believe freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental rights as Americans, but religious freedom does not give any of us the right to harm or exclude others.
We oppose this proposed legislation. First, it would put an individual’s religious beliefs ahead of the common good. Second, it could unleash a wave of costly lawsuits that will add burdens to both the courts and taxpayers alike. Third, it is unnecessary because our freedom of religion is already guaranteed and protected by the U.S. Constitution and Georgia’s State Constitution.
Fourth, a state RFRA could legalize discrimination by allowing businesses to refuse to serve customers based on religious objections. We believe that businesses that are open to the public should be open to everyone on the same terms. We strongly oppose giving for-profit corporations religious rights that could allow them to discriminate against employees based on any characteristic—from their religious practices to their sexual orientation. This principle harkens back to the civil rights movement and our nation’s core values of equality and justice.
We all have different views on the issue of marriage for same-sex couples, but we are united in condemnation of discrimination and in firm support of equal protection under the law.
We caution our elected leaders against supporting this unnecessary RFRA, which opens wide the door for exclusion and division. Instead, they must preserve the current protections already afforded to us through the Constitution.
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When it comes to political campaigns, what voters need and what they’re given are often very different things. The constant stream of negative ads, dishonesty on the campaign trail, and the outsized influence of big money drown out substantive discussion of the issues that affect us all.
However, faith leaders have a unique ability to offer a positive alternative and a better values debate that emphasizes justice, compassion and the common good. I saw it firsthand last week in Atlanta, Georgia, where clergy from across the state held the Georgia Faith Forum with Governor Nathan Deal (R) and his Democratic challenger, State Senator Jason Carter. Organized by Faith in Public Life and held in the beautiful sanctuary of Trinity Presbyterian Church and produced for broadcast by Atlanta’s WSB-TV, the forum featured 14 diverse faith leaders asking the candidates in-depth questions on issues ranging from healthcare to immigration policy to gun violence to criminal justice reform. These are issues that faith leaders are uniting to address — a values agenda for a new era in faith and politics.
But the first question asked of each candidate delved deeper: “You and your opponent both share the same faith, but you hold very different policy positions; how does your faith, as opposed to your political ideology, shape your views?” From then on, both candidates wove together their values and their policy positions in a way that voters don’t often hear.
I spoke with many clergy members of the Georgia Faith Forum board after the event, and while none agreed with every last thing they heard from the candidates, they remarked at how illuminating and unique the discussion was.
You can watch the Forum in its entirety here, or a brief overview of what it was all about here.
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