Jacksonville Baptists respond to proposed gay rights ordinance
Public comments to be permitted at May 22 City Council meeting
May 15, 2012

JACKSONVILLE (FBW) - A bill before the Jacksonville City Council granting civil rights protections for sexual orientation and gender identity is generating opposition from most Southern Baptists in the local association, while two pastors have endorsed the measure.

The measure would ban discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and housing in Jacksonville, one of four of the nation’s largest 70 cities without such civil rights protections, supporters claim.

Churches and other religious organizations are exempt from the provisions of the proposed ordinance, while religiously motivated business owners are not.

The proposed ordinance is sponsored by Councilman Warren Jones, and has the backing of many business leaders who say the absence of such civil rights protections is hurting the image of the city and recruitment of qualified workers. Leading advocates for the measure are former Mayor John Delaney, who has served as president of the University of North Florida since 2003, and former council President Matt Carlucci.

Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown has not taken a position on the proposed ordinance. He released a statement on May 7: “I will fight discrimination in any form in our city. And I will consider any effort that makes Jacksonville a safer and better place for people to live and work,” reported the Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville’s daily newspaper.

Rick Wheeler, lead missional strategist of the Jacksonville Baptist Association, sent a May 11 e-mail urging churches to “become aware of” the gay rights ordinance and “respond with clarity and conviction.”

“We hope you will take the time to inform yourself and your congregation of this issue as we engage the city with both truth and love,” Wheeler wrote.  

The email included a link to a news story on the Times-Union website and a letter from Keith Russell, pastor of Westside Baptist Church in Jacksonville, sent to members of the City Council urging opposition to the gay rights measure.

Russell said he supports current law banning discrimination based on race, gender and nationality, but he said the addition of “sexual orientation to that list would be to add preferential treatment to a lifestyle choice. This city has no business enacting legislation that protects special interest groups.”

Citing support for the gay rights ordinance by Delaney and certain Jacksonville business leaders, Russell said Council members “are being encouraged by some heavy hitters to go along with the crowd and do the popular thing.”

Russell said what’s “popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular. The proposed legislation may be popular, but it is not right. It is not right for Jacksonville, it is not right for Florida, and it is not right for America.  I encourage you to do the right thing and vote against this legislation.”

Joey Vaughn, a member of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, told Florida Baptist Witness he opposes the measure as a Christian, but he’s also “very concerned” about the proposed ordinance “as an attorney and local Christian businessman.”

Although the ordinance exempts churches and religious organizations, Vaughn said, “There is no exemption or protection under the ordinance for followers of Jesus Christ who own or work in a business.”

Passage of the measure will require Christian business owners and employees to be “compelled by the government to compromise and even abandon their Christian beliefs in the work place or face potential punishment under the civil law,” Vaughn said.

Rather than being about jobs, Vaughn said he believes the motivation for the ordinance is to “normalize the sin of homosexuality and other sinful alternative lifestyles, and to force acceptance of all such alternative lifestyles on society.”

The measure will “further infringe on the religious freedoms of Christians, and the majority of mainstream Americans who do not accept such alternative lifestyles as normal.  And it will add yet another government regulation on businesses,” Vaughn said.

Gary Harrison, a layman and deacon at North Jacksonville Baptist Church, is urging his fellow members to oppose the ordinance.

“Make no mistake, this bill is about sending the message that the gay lifestyle is equal in every way to a biblically based traditional relationship between a man and a woman,” Harrison said in an e-mail to fellow church members he made available to Florida Baptist Witness.

Harrison said the proposed ordinance would violate landlords’ religious beliefs by forcing them to rent their properties to those they consider acting immorally.

“Businesses, including daycare centers, and clubs, such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, would have to forfeit their moral beliefs to accommodate this unbiblical conduct. … Sexual immorality is wrong, whether homosexual or heterosexual,” he said.

Harrison urged fellow members to contact their Council representatives to oppose the ordinance, write letters to the editor, go to the City Council meeting, urge others to act, and to pray that God will give “spiritual clarity of what is biblically right and wrong and call His people to not be apathetic to standing for godly principles.”

Pastors of two Jacksonville churches affiliated with the Jacksonville Baptist Association and Florida Baptist State Convention – Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church and Riverside Baptist Church – have publicly affirmed the proposed gay rights ordinance. The churches are also affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida, according to the organization’s website.

David Holladay, pastor of Riverside, and Kyle Reese, pastor of Hendricks Avenue, were among 25 local religious leaders to sign a May 7 “Open Letter from Jacksonville Clerics and Faith Leaders” sent to members of the City Council. A version of the letter appeared in the May 9 edition of the Times-Union.

“We believe that it is inherently unfair to leave a segment of Jacksonville’s citizens open to being fired, denied housing, or denied services in public venues based solely on the fact that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender,” the letter argues.

In urging support for the measure, the letter argues, “As faith leaders we may hold different opinions on other issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity and are, and will remain, free to express them. But we are not a community that believes in hatred or discrimination, but rather a community that believes in caring for and respecting our neighbors, co-workers, family and friends.”

Holladay told the Times-Union his congregation includes members “who struggle with the issue of being fired because they’re gay or perceived as gay.”

According to Vaughn, public comments about the proposed ordinance will be permitted at the next meeting of the City Council, scheduled for May 22. Two committees are scheduled to consider it the week of June 4. A City Council vote on the measure could come at its June 12 meeting.

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