Baptist pastors in Mississippi have signed their names to a letter defending the state's new religious freedom law that was the subject of left-wing attacks and media criticism.
Dr. Chas Rowland, pastor of Bovina Baptist Church in Vicksburg, was the primary author of the letter that was published May 21 in The Clarion-Ledger, a daily newspaper published in Jackson.
Rowland says he penned his letter after a group of United Methodist pastors wrote a letter opposing the law.
"That bothered me," he says of the first letter. "I wanted it to be clear that there were a large number of pastors that supported the bill and thought that it was a good thing."
HB 1523 was passed by the state House and Senate in April, and Gov. Phil Bryant signed the law despite protests from homosexual activists and warnings from the business community that it would hurt the state.
Similar tactics were used in Indiana last year – and worked – but Bryant signed the legislation anyway.
The new state law protects business owners whose religious faith prohibits them from participating in a same-sex wedding ceremony or related event.
It also protects state employees who object to licensing a same-sex marriage.
"We believe that the First Amendment guarantees every citizen the right to believe and practice their faith in a way that does not violate their deeply held religious belief," Rowland and the other Baptist ministers state in the letter.
"We most importantly believe," the letter continues, "that the government has no right or privilege to restrict religious expression in any form and that every individual must be granted this right or else all other rights are in jeopardy."
The letter by Methodist ministers claimed the state law was "sinful" because it allowed "discriminatory practices."
Rob Chambers, vice president for Mississippi-based AFA Action, says it's important for clergy to lead out on this. "If pastors don't lead the charge then I believe that we will lose our First Amendment rights, or they will be watered down very much so," he laments.
Chambers wishes the pastors would have voiced their support for the measure publicly while the battle was going on in the legislature, but acknowledges that the boldness of pastors still makes a difference.
"The other people who are in the pews are looking for the pastor to lead," says the AFA spokesman. "It is his purpose to lead the church, to lead the sheep – and if they do not lead the charge, then the people very likely will not follow."
Chambers says it's also critical for pastors to act independently of their denominations and take responsibility for themselves as opposed to relying on a figure head speaking for them.
Comments by Chambers added after story was originally published.