Last Friday, the Georgia Senate passed the First Amendment Defense Act, a piece of legislation that allows churches and business owners to deny services to members of the LGBT community based on religious convictions. If passed by the Georgia House, the bill would then go to Governor Deal to sign into law.
Described by its proponents as a bill to defend religious liberty, it is instead a bill designed to encourage discrimination in Jesus’ name. What follows is an open letter to the governor.
As a Baptist pastor in Canton, GA I implore you not to sign the First Amendment Defense Act should it ever make it to your desk. According to the bill’s proponents, I write to you as exactly the kind of person the bill is designed to protect. The problem is I’m not sure what exactly this bill is supposed to protect me from.
Instead of protecting the interests of religious leaders and organizations, this bill’s only effect is to encourage and promote discrimination.
Proud southerners have worked for more than a generation to overcome a harsh legacy of discrimination that was too often defended by appeals to religious liberty. The idea, though, that advancements in freedom for some somehow represent diminished freedom for others is false.
The free exercise of religion is most threatened not by the advancing tides of tolerance and acceptance, but by fear-filled environments of prejudice and discrimination.
As an American pastor, I enjoy the most robust protection of religious freedom anywhere in the world. As a resident of the United States and the great state of Georgia, my freedom of speech—religious and otherwise—is protected as sacred. So, too, is my freedom of conscience protected, as are the speech and consciences of all my church members and every person of faith in Georgia.
My church is free to accept or reject members according to our independently arrived at religious beliefs. We are free to accept into leadership anyone we choose and to exclude whom we want to for any religious reason whatsoever.
We can extend our ordinances or withhold them at our own discretion, and we are free to include or exclude anyone we so desire in the performance of any religious ritual or rite—including marriage.
In short, never in the history of the world has any minister or church operated more freely than I and Heritage Baptist Fellowship do now.
Nothing has happened in the last months or years to change that. As long as the First Amendment continues to offer its protection, no court decision or legislation will reach across our church threshold to in any way inform or influence our practices and beliefs. This bill would do nothing to expand the nearly unfettered freedom our church already enjoys.
What this bill would do, though, is roll back the clock on hard fought progress toward universal equality. It would create a second class of citizens—a group whose lack of equal access in commerce and equal protection under the law have the potential to create a new kind of Jim Crow in Georgia.
Can you imagine lunch counters in Georgia town squares where citizens of this great state were expressly excluded because serving them is interpreted as religiously offensive by the owners? Because this bill would not just allow that kind of behavior, it will provide statutory cover to encourage it. How about banks and real estate agencies, fitness centers and day cares, statutorily encouraged to discriminate based on supposed religious preference? Your signature will encourage those who are so inclined to engage in just that kind of discrimination against our LGBT brothers and sisters.
As a fellow Baptist—and a man of deep faith—I know you understand that the politics of exclusion and discrimination aren’t just out of step with the principles that make this the greatest nation in the world, they’re out of step with the grace-filled message of Jesus Christ.
For these reasons, it is with the utmost respect that I urge you to publicly oppose the First Amendment Defense Act and further ask that you refuse to sign it should it make it to your desk.
Yours in Christ,
Matt Sapp, Pastor
Heritage Baptist Fellowship