Baptists take both sides of the ‘religious liberty’ fight
5:23 p.m. Jan. 21 By Jim Galloway / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
This fight over religious liberty bills in the state Capitol has become a particularly Baptist affair. On both sides of the issue.
Last week, the Rev. Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, gave the invocation that’s part of the daily tradition of the House – a short sermon aimed at lawmakers who choose not to flee into the hallways.
Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’ve probably heard Wright’s voice. He does those brief, “Wright from the heart” devotionals on TV and the radio. He is also a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, still the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
So Wright is something of a big deal in conservative clerical circles. And when, in his sermon, the pastor linked the issue of gay marriage to the religious liberty legislation now under consideration, dozing lawmakers suddenly woke up. “We are living in a society that’s on a collision course with the choice between erotic liberty and religious liberty,” Wright warned.
To those who argue that morality was something that couldn’t be legislated, Wright had this reply ready: “Then why do you meet down here? It’s all about the restraint of evil.”
Wright’s remarks caused immediate discomfort. The 180-member House has three lesbian members – none of whom, one presumes, thinks of herself as evil.
But the sponsors of the religious liberty movement were also nonplussed. Their bills are about protecting believers from government overreach, not gay marriage, they argue. Yet backers have faced a wall of opposition from gay rights groups and major corporations in Georgia who contend the measures amount to a rearguard action against courtroom gains by same-sex unions. Businesses in particular see the bills as a future source of lawsuits and boycotts.
You can see the problem. Despite those protests to the contrary, here was Wright linking gay marriage to religious liberty bills.
Because the Legislature has been slow to take up even more volatile issues, like transportation funding, the religious liberty issue has hung out there like a piñata. And the bats have been plentiful.
That’s one reason that state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has yet to introduce his measure. Another is that he’s considering a clause to restrict the ability of local governments to use zoning to control houses of worship – which would have prevented the recent attempt by the city of Kennesaw to block the establishment of a mosque.
I asked McKoon whether he viewed his bill as part of the “erotic liberty” versus “religious liberty” fight outlined by the former head of the Southern Baptist denomination.
“No,” McKoon replied. “I think that the whole notion that LGBT rights are at odds with the right of free exercise [of religion] is absurd.”
Another Baptist entered the fray on Sunday, with an op-ed piece in the Macon Telegraph. David Cooke, 45, is the Democratic district attorney for the Macon Judicial Circuit. He prosecuted cases of spousal and child abuse for more than a dozen years – and specialized in the field while attached to the Fulton County district attorney’s office. “When I worked for Paul Howard, I had almost all the child murders,” Cooke said.
Cooke is concerned about a passage in House Bill 29, the religious liberty bill introduced by state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, that emphasizes the “fundamental right” of parents to control their children when it comes to “education, discipline, religious and moral instruction, health, medical care, welfare” and such.
A line from Cooke’s column: “We shouldn’t let a cleverly named bill pass through the General Assembly when the results could allow a person to ignore Georgia’s child welfare laws by claiming ‘deeply held religious beliefs.’”
The district attorney cites the 2002 case, which he prosecuted, of the Rev. Arthur Allen and 10 other members of the House of Prayer in Atlanta, who were accused of beating young boys until their wounds gaped. Allen, who claimed church doctrine required such discipline, did two years in prison.
Both McKoon and Teasley say that Cooke’s fears are unfounded – that the state’s “compelling interest” in child safety is paramount. They consider the Macon district attorney’s warnings to be part of the larger effort to unfairly discredit the bills.
But here’s the rub: David Cooke sits on the board of directors of the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an 82-year-old organization dedicated to the separation of church and state.
The group was started by Southern Baptists in 1936, but the SBC cut its ties to the religious liberty group in 1991. As a board member of that group, Cooke represents the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a splinter group of churches that left the Southern Baptist circle. Former President Jimmy Carter helped organize it.
In other words, Cooke is serious about the religious liberty issue, just as Teasley and McKoon are. “All that stuff really, really matters to me,” Cooke said in an interview.
I asked Cooke what he thought about gay marriage. “I believe that churches should decide who marries in a particular church, and the Constitution should decide who marries at the courthouse,” he replied.
But same-sex unions aren’t why he entered the fray, Cooke said. Which should please supporters of the religious liberty bill.
“I believe that the law as proposed places children at risk,” the district attorney said. That might not please religious liberty supporters so much.