October 2017

Twitter suspends, reinstates pro-life campaign ad

October 12 2017 by David Roach, Baptist Press

Twitter’s day-long suspension of a campaign ad by U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn over its pro-life content has left social media users discussing the microblogging site’s free speech policies.

Screen capture from YouTube
U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn said she is “100 percent pro-life” in a campaign video that was temporarily removed from Twitter’s paid advertising platform.

Among evangelicals, some claimed calculated censorship of Blackburn’s anti-abortion views while others wondered whether the move was merely an unintended consequence of ill-defined Twitter policies.
“The million-dollar question” is whether Twitter’s initial removal of the video was “an honest mistake,” said Daniel Ausbun, a Kentucky pastor whose YouTube account was temporarily deleted in 2014, apparently over a sermon he preached at a previous church about Christian persecution in the Middle East. The account was reinstated after Fox News published his story.
Ausbun, now pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., told Baptist Press (BP), “I do think there is religious censorship” by online platforms “if you say the wrong things, like with [Blackburn]. She got the boot for her pro-life position.”
Blackburn, in announcing her candidacy for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Bob Corker, released a two-and-a-half-minute video in which she stated, “I am 100 percent pro-life. I fought Planned Parenthood, and we stopped the sale of baby parts. Thank God.”
Her comments presumably referenced her leadership of a U.S. House of Representatives panel that investigated the Planned Parenthood Federation of America for allegedly selling body parts from aborted babies. Planned Parenthood denies any wrongdoing but announced in 2015 it would no longer accept reimbursement for providing fetal tissue to medical researchers.
On Oct. 9, Twitter suspended advertisements purchased by Blackburn’s Senate campaign that included the video. Twitter told campaign officials the line about baby parts “had been deemed an inflammatory statement that is likely to evoke a strong negative reaction,” according to media reports.
Though the ad was taken down, Twitter users remained free to share the video via their accounts.
Numerous media outlets reported Twitter’s decision, and Blackburn, a Republican, claimed in a fundraising email that “Silicon Valley is trying to censor us ... the liberal elite are relentless in their attempts to silence our movement.”
Twitter reversed its decision Oct. 10 and reinstated the ad.
Nicholas Pacilio, a Twitter spokesman, said in a statement, “Our ads policies strive to balance protecting our users from potentially distressing content while allowing advertisers to communicate their messages. Nowhere is this more difficult than in the realm of political advertising and the highly charged issues that are often addressed therein.
“After further review, we have made the decision to allow the content in question from Rep. Blackburn’s campaign ad to be promoted on our ads platform. While we initially determined that a small portion of the video used potentially inflammatory language, after reconsidering the ad in the context of the entire message, we believe that there is room to refine our policies around these issues,” Pacilio said.
Darrel Girardier, who oversees social media for one of the largest churches in the congressional district Blackburn has represented since 2003, said Twitter does not seem to have company-wide bias against conservatives. He speculated the campaign ad suspension could have stemmed from the difficulty of applying “vague” company policies.
“Twitter probably has the most vague policies of all social media platforms in the sense that what people can and cannot post” is relatively undefined, Girardier, creative director at Brentwood (Tenn.) Baptist Church, told BP. “I live and work on the platform, and I can’t tell you specifically what you can and can’t do.”
The “lack of clarity” in Twitter regulations, Girardier said, forces individual employees to “make the call” to remove content “based on their preference versus having clear guidelines.”
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) President Russell Moore told BP “Twitter should not silence dissenting voices, if it wishes to be a platform for debate and free exchange of ideas.
“Planned Parenthood has been a force establishing a culture of death for a century, and recent years have exposed the organization even further as a trafficker of human bodies for financial gain,” Moore said in written comments.
To be censured for noting “that fact is a sobering reminder of just how deeply the abortion lobby is entrenched in our cultural conscience. It shows us how far we have to go in the cause of life and human dignity and how urgent that work still is for the entire body of Christ,” Moore said.
In 2015, Facebook temporarily blocked users from posting a commentary by Moore on Planned Parenthood’s alleged sale of organs from aborted babies. Facebook displayed a message to users stating the post “include[d] content that other people on Facebook have reported as abusive.” After several hours, Facebook “admitted the error,” the ERLC told BP at the time.
Ausbun, the pastor whose YouTube account was suspended, urged Christians to be vigilant in reporting online censorship. After his story became public, many fellow pastors shared their own allegations of being censored unjustly by online platforms, he said.
Blackburn “and I are part of a bigger story,” Ausbun said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)

10/12/2017 8:18:36 AM by David Roach, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Housing allowance defense joined by ERLC & GuideStone

October 12 2017 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

The Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) religious freedom entity will maintain its effort to preserve the ministerial housing allowance because pastors are crucial “for flourishing, vibrant communities,” Russell Moore said Oct. 10.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) stands alongside GuideStone Financial Resources – the SBC’s health and financial benefits entity – in opposing an Oct. 6 federal court decision that invalidated the housing allowance, said Moore, the ERLC’s president. In the opinion, Judge Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin ruled the allowance an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment clause that prohibits a government establishment of religion – the second time she has done so in four years.
Moore described the opinion as “a sad development that represents a needless challenge to hard-working pastors devoted to serving their communities.”
“More still, this ruling is wrong: the housing allowance is in no sense the government establishing religion,” Moore said in a written release. “The allowance is neutral, applies indiscriminately to all religions and removing it would disproportionately harm clergy in small congregations across the country.”
GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins also took issue with the basis of the opinion in an Oct. 9 statement.
“The housing allowance, far from being a government endorsement of religion, as Judge Crabb contends, actually removes government from the equation,” Hawkins said in written comments. “Were it not for the housing allowance, the government would be imposing a tax on religious employers and their employees that is not imposed on non-religious employers.”
GuideStone has been monitoring the case – as well as previous related cases – and will attempt to file a friend-of-the-court brief as part of a coalition of denominational benefit boards, Hawkins said.
GuideStone and the ERLC also were united in opposing Crabb’s 2013 decision striking down the housing allowance. The entities issued a joint news release to protest her ruling at that time, then signed on to separate friend-of-the-court briefs urging the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago to reverse the decision.
The Seventh Circuit Court overturned Crabb’s ruling in 2014, finding the atheist organization that brought the lawsuit lacked the legal right – known as “standing” – to challenge the allowance.
GuideStone had joined in a brief by the Church Alliance, a coalition of church benefit programs, while the ERLC – as well as the International Mission Board – signed on to a brief with a diverse group of religious organizations.
At issue is a portion of a 1954 law that permits “ministers of the gospel” to exclude for federal income tax purposes a portion or all of their gross income as a housing allowance. Their church or church-related employer must designate the amount.
This time, changes in the facts of the case may enable Crabb’s decision to gain a favorable verdict from the Seventh Circuit, some legal observers believe. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) – which also sued in the 2013 case – argued in its challenge that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) violated the Constitution by rejecting its leaders’ efforts to claim the ministerial housing allowance. FFRF has met the Seventh Circuit’s prerequisites to gain legal standing, Crabb said in her opinion.
The appeals court may uphold Crabb’s latest opinion because she appears “bound by existing law to decide the case this way,” Mississippi College law professor Matt Steffey told Baptist Press (BP). “The way the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted” the establishment clause to disallow the preference of religion over non-religion “dictates to a lower court, which must follow the existing Supreme Court precedent to arrive at this decision.”
Michael and Jonathan Whitehead – a Southern Baptist father-son legal team in Kansas City, Mo. – expressed optimism about a Seventh Circuit ruling to affirm the housing allowance.
“A pastor’s house is a place of ministry and hospitality,” Jonathan Whitehead said in written comments for BP. “When a church designates funds to be used at that place of ministry, it shouldn’t be subject to additional income tax.”
Congress has taken account of the special burdens that a rule taxing housing expenses could place on churches and their pastors, he said. “We believe the Seventh Circuit will understand these concerns and will not require the IRS to tax church expenses.
“Ministers and ministries have entered into compensation agreements, home purchases and retirement plans, in reliance upon this [IRS] code section,” Whitehead told BP. “Courts are loath to disregard or upset significant and substantial reliance interests by millions of Americans who have based their plans on this longstanding tax law.”
In a written commentary on Crabb’s ruling, the Whiteheads said ministers “should monitor the developments in this case, but need not panic or abruptly change their practice regarding housing allowance. Churches should continue to designate in 2017 housing allowance amounts to be paid to qualified ministers in 2018.”
GuideStone advised ministers to consult the entity’s annual tax guide, available at GuideStone.org/taxguide, and its housing allowance information, available at GuideStone.org/housingallowance, to ensure they are properly documenting housing allowance and reporting it appropriately on their income tax returns.
Crabb refused to include the parsonage provision in her decision, the Whiteheads said.
Under the federal income tax system, some housing costs are primarily for “the convenience of the employer,” not the employee. As a result, such costs are not considered income. In addition to ministers, those who receive such benefits include members of the U.S. military, workers living overseas and employees of educational institutions.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. With reporting by David Roach, BP’s chief national correspondent.)

Related article:
Clergy housing allowance struck down again

10/12/2017 8:11:57 AM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

ACLU sues to allow abortion pills in pharmacies

October 12 2017 by Samantha Gobba, WORLD News Service

Women should be able to get abortion-inducing drugs at their local pharmacies in addition to abortion facilities, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argues in a new lawsuit.
The group sued on behalf of a Hawaii abortionist and three medical entities against federal regulations of the drug RU-486, also known as mifepristone and the brand name Mifeprex.
The drug works with the drug misoprostol to cut off nutrients to babies during early pregnancy and send the mother into labor.
Under Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations of Mifeprex, abortionists must order, carry and dispense the drug themselves or send women to a clinic, medical office or hospital that carries it. The FDA relaxed the regulations on Mifeprex in 2016 by allowing abortionists to administer it later in pregnancy than before and removing the requirement that the companion drug, misoprostol, be administered at an abortion facility.
Some abortionists have difficulty stocking the abortion drugs, the ACLU said, and the FDA should loosen the restrictions on mifepristone even further.
“Once a woman has been prescribed Mifeprex, there is no medical benefit to requiring that the pill be handed to her at a medical office, clinic or hospital rather than handed to her at her local pharmacy or via a mail-order pharmacy,” the suit states.
But pro-life advocates disagree: The drug is risky enough for women without further easing of restrictions.
“The marketing spin is to repeat the mantra of ‘safe’ over and over again when the reality is, these are dangerous drugs,” Donna Harrison, executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said. “Women have died from them. Women have hemorrhaged from them. Women have had to have emergency surgery. These are not safe.”
ACLU of Hawaii director Mateo Caballero called the drug a “safe, proven method to end a pregnancy,” and said the FDA’s requirements were “politically motivated.”
But Harrison cited a 2009 Finnish study that compared 42,619 surgical and chemical abortions over six years. Researchers found that women who had chemical abortions had a 20 percent chance of “adverse events” that included hemorrhage and incomplete abortion, while women who had surgical abortion faced a 5.6 percent chance of complications.
National Right to Life’s Randall O’Bannon pointed out that the FDA initially took measures to inform women of the risks of complications from abortion drugs and only relaxed its standards after “bowing to the abortion lobby.”
“The ACLU and the abortion lobby don’t like the FDA reminding women of those risks, and they want the drugs available from every pharmacy in the country,” O’Bannon said. “Anything that allows prescribers or patients to be less informed of the risks or less attuned to the warning signs – which is what the changes the ACLU and the abortion industry seeks would do – is grossly irresponsible and dangerous.”
The lawsuit, if successful, would also affect pharmacists with conscientious objections to dispensing mifepristone. In 2015, Christian business owners in Washington who protested stocking their pharmacy with emergency contraceptives Plan B and Ella lost a federal appeal in Stormans Inc. v. Weisman. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Samantha Gobba writes for WORLD News Service, a division of WORLD Magazine, worldmag.com, based in Asheville, N.C. Used by permission.)

10/12/2017 8:04:07 AM by Samantha Gobba, WORLD News Service | with 0 comments

California wildfires rage, churches ‘jumping into action’

October 11 2017 by David Roach, Baptist Press

Amid Northern California wildfires that have killed at least 13 people and burned more than 1,500 buildings since Oct. 8, Southern Baptist churches have begun ministering and California Southern Baptist Convention (CSBC) disaster relief crews are poised for relief work.
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The death toll is expected to rise, according to media reports, and more than 100 people have been reported missing. As of Oct. 10, several of the 17 fires had not been contained.
Though the CSBC’s disaster relief crews remain on standby as first responders conclude rescue operations, local churches already are providing housing and helping to feed the 20,000 people forced to evacuate. Some 120,000 acres in California’s wine country have been burned.
“There’s so much to be done,” said Bob Lawler, mission catalyst for the Redwood Empire Baptist Association in Vacaville, Calif. “Our churches are just trying to figure out how to be as helpful as they can.”
At least two churches that cooperate with the Redwood Empire Baptist Association, Lawler told Baptist Press (BP), have opened their facilities as shelters for fire evacuees: Trinity Baptist Church in Healdsburg, Calif., and Red Hill Church in San Anselmo, Calif.
Community Baptist Church in Santa Rosa, Calif., also is ministering to the community, Lawler said. Santa Rosa has suffered “perhaps the worst damage” of any city, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. A local subdivision that housed 7,000 people was leveled by fire.
BP was unable to reach Community Baptist before its publication deadline to confirm details of the ministry.
“It’s great to see Christian brothers and sisters jumping into action,” Lawler said.
First Baptist Church in Clearlake, Calif. – where fire has destroyed more than 100 homes and blackened the landscape – has helped feed and find lodging for three families in the congregation that were displaced. Pastor Larry Fanning serves as a police chaplain and was called into action Oct. 9 to counsel and pray with fire victims.
After two consecutive years of devastating wildfires in Clearlake, “we almost thought we were going to get through the whole season without a fire,” Fanning told BP, noting it hasn’t rained since June in the area.
Petaluma Valley Baptist Church in Petaluma, Calif., coordinated with other churches in its area and determined its facility was not needed as a shelter for some 700 local evacuees, pastor Bob Merwin told BP. So the congregation sent its members to other churches that are serving as shelters to distribute food, translate for non-English speakers and walk dogs among other tasks.
Mike Bivins, CSBC disaster relief coordinator, said DR units are ready as soon as state officials call them to assist in the recovery effort.
“California Southern Baptist disaster relief has been in standby mode with chaplains and volunteers for mass food preparation ... and shelter work, including showers and laundry,” Bivins said.
The cause of the Northern California fires has not been determined, according to media reports.
Meanwhile, fires in Southern California have burned thousands of acres and destroyed at least 24 structures, according to the Chronicle. Among residents forced to evacuate their homes was Victor Chayasirisobhon, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Anaheim, Calif., and CSBC vice president, the state convention reported.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)


10/11/2017 8:40:21 AM by David Roach, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

SBTS trustees adopt gender, sexuality statement

October 11 2017 by SBTS Communications

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) trustees unanimously approved a recommendation to adopt The Nashville Statement as an official part of the school’s confessional documents Oct. 9 during its fall meeting.

SBTS photo
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speaks during the seminary’s trustee meeting on Oct. 9.

The seminary’s board of trustees also responded to additional motions, heard financial reports, and celebrated record student enrollment from the previous academic year. The recommendation about The Nashville Statement came from seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr.
The Nashville Statement is a document that affirms biblical teaching about gender and sexuality and seeks to clarify Christian beliefs on some of the most pressing cultural issues. It was published earlier this year by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and signed by evangelical leaders across the United States, including each Southern Baptist seminary president. That SBTS adopted it, according to Mohler, is a matter of responsibility. See related report.
“Southern Seminary takes its confessional responsibility with great significance,” Mohler said in an interview immediately following the Board’s public session Monday evening. “Years ago, our Board of Trustees recognized the need of adopting certain statements that clarify and establish the meaning our longstanding confessional documents: the Abstract of Principles, adopted in 1859, and the Baptist Faith and Message, as revised in 2000.”
Like the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” and the “Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” – both previously adopted by the board – The Nashville Statement is a “timely addition” to that list of official documents, Mohler noted.
Faculty members at SBTS and Boyce College agree to sign and teach according to the Abstract of Principles and the revision of the Baptist Faith and Message. The Nashville Statement was adopted to help interpret those two binding statements and specify the seminary’s conviction on matters not directly addressed in the central confessions of the institution, Mohler said.
The Nashville Statement does not reflect new thinking, Mohler emphasized. Instead, he said, it affirms historic Christian teaching about human sexuality.
“The Nashville Statement is not a statement of new beliefs held by evangelicals,” Mohler said, “but is rather a distillation and clarification of what Christians have believed about these questions throughout 20 centuries – 2,000 years of church history. Ultimately, it is a statement of what we believe is revealed in Holy Scripture, and thus beliefs to which we are fully accountable and of which we are not ashamed.”
What is new, Mohler said, is the need to apply historic Christian teaching to contemporary confusion regarding sex and gender.
“These days, no Christian, and certainly no Christian institution or ministry, can avoid answering the most pressing questions presented to us by the culture,” he said. “These are real-life questions that will determine the policies and the substance of any ministry or school. The Nashville Statement is the kind of clarification that is so clearly needed at this moment.”
He noted, “One of the most important reasons for the very development of The Nashville Statement was to provide a clear statement of evangelical conviction about what we believe the Bible reveals and the Christian church has historically believed on matters of gender, sex and sexuality.”
Mohler said he hopes other evangelical institutions will follow the Board’s actions.
“In the end, I think the Nashville Statement will prove to be a watershed in the evangelical movement,” he said. “I would certainly hope that other evangelical schools, ministries and organizations will adopt the very same statement, and do so making very clear where they stand on this issue. Southern Seminary is making its convictions on these questions very clear, and I was glad to join with other evangelical leaders in adopting The Nashville Statement.”
In other business trustees:

  • Observed a record enrollment at SBTS and Boyce College for the 2017-2018 academic year, with the number of students between the two schools climbing to 5,489.
  • Heard reports from various sub-committees of the Board about the financial and student body health of the school. Without exception, reports told favorable stories about the state of SBTS.
  • Adopted an expansion of SBTS’s doctrinal statement, which makes clear that the board is SBTS’s “final interpretive authority on the Bible’s meaning and application.” According to Mohler, the statement makes clear that the Board of Trustees is responsible for the theological guardianship of the seminary, since it is elected to do so by the Southern Baptist Convention. This recommendation also came from Mohler.
  • Responded to a motion from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), June 13-14, in Phoenix, Ariz., that all SBC entities publish online the names and contact information for the trustees of each institution. The SBTS trustees replied that the school does not release personal data concerning its board, which is consistent with its policies regarding the security of personal information.

The next meeting of the Board of Trustees will take place April 16-17, 2018, in Louisville.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary communications department released this report.)

10/11/2017 8:39:12 AM by SBTS Communications | with 0 comments

Church should lead way on civility, Gov. Haslam says

October 11 2017 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

The church should be at the forefront of promoting civility in a deeply divided culture, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told Christian leaders at a Southern Baptist-sponsored event in Nashville.

Photo by Jason Thacker
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, left, answers questions from ERLC President Russell Moore during an Oct. 3 lunch event in Nashville.

“We, of all people, understand grace,” Haslam said of Christians at an Oct. 3 lunch held by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), “and we of all people understand, ‘You know, I don’t really have the right to be on a high horse yelling at you because but for God’s immeasurable grace I’d be a mess. So we should understand the need for civility.
“By the same token, we also believe in truth,” he said, adding he still hopes he can have a civil discussion with those who disagree with him. “Understanding grace, I think, changes everything about all of your relationships.”
Haslam appeared at the ERLC Leadership Lunch in the Southern Baptist Convention Building to answer questions from the entity’s president, Russell Moore, and the audience of pastors, leaders and other Christians from Middle Tennessee.
During the governor’s appearance, Moore presented Haslam with the ERLC’s 2017 Richard Land Distinguished Service Award, which goes annually to a person displaying excellent service to God’s kingdom. The ERLC trustees unanimously approved Haslam for the award at their meeting in August.
In presenting the award, Moore pointed to Haslam’s conviction and civility. Haslam has served as a model “for people all around the country when it comes to articulating a view of human dignity” on such issues as abortion and foster care, Moore said, adding he also has spoken out on behalf of religious freedom.
“What I appreciate about our governor is he is able to do that in a way that can persuade people who are out there in the sort of persuadable middle ... and has really led our state to think about the forgotten people,” Moore said.
He became a Christian when he was 16 years old during a weekend Young Life camp in the mountains of North Carolina, Haslam told the audience. It marked the first time he had heard the gospel of Jesus clearly presented, he said. The speaker urged the young people not to fail to decide about Christ. The message stuck with him, and he accepted Christ sitting on the steps of a gym, Haslam said.
Two or three weeks later, his mother – only 42 – died of a heart attack while taking a nap, Haslam said. “Those same folks who had worked to try to get me to go to camp and to introduce the gospel were the same folks who literally enveloped me. And so from the beginning I got a great picture of: ‘Here is what the body of Christ looks like,’” he said.
Haslam succeeded as a businessman, was elected mayor of Knoxville before winning the governorship as a Republican in 2010. He will finish his second and final term as governor in January 2019.
When U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee announced recently he would not run for re-election in 2018, Haslam received encouragement to run for the seat. The governor announced Oct. 5, two days after the ERLC Leadership Lunch, he would not run for the Senate so he could maintain his focus on being governor the next 15 months. After 15 years as a mayor and governor, Haslam said he believes he can be most helpful as a private citizen.
Moore asked Haslam how he remains a Christian in business and politics.
“For me the answer is simple,” he said. Starting when Haslam was in his late 20s, four other Christian men showed up at his house every Friday morning to be open with one another. “Honestly, I think having a relationship with that group of guys has been the kind of steadying influence in my life.”
Asked about how he handles all the decisions he has to make as a governor, Haslam pointed to three factors.
“I hope it begins with the thought that this isn’t about me – this decision,” he said. “Hopefully you start out without the pressure of: ‘OK, what do I need to do to look good in this situation?’”
Second, he tries to surround himself with wise counselors. No. 3, and most important, “I honestly feel that all of our decisions are characterized by being followers of the gospel. They just are,” Haslam said. “[The decisions] are all, I hope, not just seasoned by [the gospel] but determined by what we believe to be true.”
The governor told those attending they would be shocked at how similar their jobs would feel if they swapped places with him.
“I tell people all the time, ‘I thought I was coming to be the CEO of the state, but I was really coming to be the senior pastor of the state,’” Haslam said, citing the many competing, valid needs he must address.
Moore asked the governor how he deals with criticism.
“I take all criticism as with some validity,” Haslam said. “On the other hand, we can’t be a prisoner to it; we can’t be captive to it.”
When asked from the floor what issues the church in Nashville or Tennessee could help address, Haslam cited foster care and racial reconciliation.
“I think the church can help us to have a whole different conversation around racial reconciliation,” he said. “And I say that because we’re the people that believe that one day every tongue and every tribe and every nation is going to kneel down together. And if we really believe that, that changes all our conversations.”
Those “painful, frank and helpful conversations” need to take place, Haslam said.
The ERLC Leadership Lunch is held three or four times a year for pastors, leaders and lay people to gather for a discussion of contemporary ethical and cultural issues. Sometimes the format is a question-and-answer session with Moore. At other times, the lunch features interviews with special guests or presentations on relevant topics.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)

10/11/2017 8:37:55 AM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Individual rights & sexuality aired at NOBTS forum

October 11 2017 by Gary D. Myers, NOBTS

Advocates from several perspectives on same-sex marriage and LGBT rights discussed the emotionally and politically charged issues, which often pit the church against the prevailing culture, during a forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS).

Photo by Gary D. Myers
Tony Campolo, professor emeritus at Eastern University, tells how he went from advocating traditional biblical marriage to accepting same-sex marriage during a forum at New Orleans Seminary as SarahJane Guidry of the Louisiana Forum for Equality listens.

The “Rights and Sexuality: Where Individual Freedoms and Civil Rights Meet” event was sponsored by the seminary’s Institute for Faith and the Public Square.
Lloyd Harsch, the institute’s director, noted, “What we are trying to do with the Institute for Faith and the Public Square is to provide a safe environment for rational conversation on difficult issues where we can listen to each other and find common ground.” A video of the forum is available at faith-publicsquare.org/past-events.html.
Tony Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University, and SarahJane Guidry, executive director of Louisiana’s Forum for Equality, advocated for acceptance of same-sex marriage and greater LGBT protections. Craig V. Mitchell, a Christian ethicist and political scientist, and Travis Weber, a lawyer with the Family Research Council, argued for traditional marriage and protections for those who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Forum organizers described the speakers as respectful, modeling civil discussion on matters of deep and passionate disagreement.
Mitchell opposed same-sex marriage by articulating the heart of the evangelical argument against the practice – homosexuality is at odds with scripture. However, Mitchell was clear that the church must oppose those who would mistreat LGBT individuals.
“The church is supposed to be salt and light,” Mitchell said. “We need to call sin what it is; at the same time we need to show the love of Christ. We need to love the sinner while hating the sin.”
Mitchell acknowledged missteps by the church in its attempts to love the LGBT community while upholding a biblical view of marriage. However, he sees the stance on homosexuality as a sin as the key point of tension between the church and LGBT advocates.
Campolo opposed same-sex marriage until two-and-a-half years ago when his view shifted toward acceptance of same-sex marriage in part due to his work counseling homosexuals. Campolo acknowledged that he could be wrong on homosexuality.
While Campolo and Mitchell disagreed on same-sex marriage, the two found some common ground on the issue of church-state entanglement in marriage. The state licenses both the couple who is getting married and the clergy member who conducts the service. It is the clergy member, Campolo said, who solemnizes the union. Yet in America, these functions are mingled together.

Photo by Gary D. Myers
Travis Weber, right, a lawyer with the Family Research Council, discusses religious objections by bakers and photographers to commissions for same-sex wedding ceremonies during a forum at New Orleans Seminary. Evangelical scholar Craig Mitchell, left, joined Weber in defense of religious liberty.

“If you want to get married in Amsterdam you go down to the city hall and you register and a civil ceremony takes place,” Campolo said. “If you want a religious blessing, you then go to the church and the minister or the priest blesses the relationship. Separating the two things solves all the problems.”
Mitchell agreed that separating the civil and religious aspects of marriage could relieve some, but not all, of the conflict regarding same-sex marriage. Even with the separation of the civil and religious aspects of marriage, he said the church must still point out sin and call for repentance.
“No one likes to be called a sinner, yet every one of us is,” Mitchell said. “It is the job of the church to remind people.”
The tension between the church and the state was evident throughout the discussion – especially regarding the cases of bakers and wedding photographers who refuse to accept commissions for events that violate their conscience.
Weber said the religious freedom laws in the country have not changed but the way the LGBT community responds to those laws is changing. There is a growing conflict between traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs on sexuality and “those who believe in self-centered, individualized sexual autonomy detached from any outside moral framework,” Weber said.
Religious freedom laws require a “compelling reason” for the government to deny a religious objection, Weber said. In the cases involving bakers and photographers who refuse commissions for same-sex ceremonies, he sees no compelling reason to deny their religious objection.
“Jack Phillips [a Christian baker in Colorado] was happy to provide items from his bakery to anyone who walks into his shop regardless of what they claim to be their sexual orientation,” Weber said. “He just didn’t want to provide a cake for the [same-sex] wedding ceremony.”
For Weber, Phillips’ refusal should be protected because it is clearly based on his own moral and religious beliefs. The objection did not infringe on the couple’s ability to have a cake at their ceremony. Many other bakers were willing to accept the commissions for same-sex ceremonies, Weber said.
“There’s no reason to force those who have a conscience objection to being involved in [the ceremony] ... to be implicated against their conscience,” Weber said. “The way forward is to recognize the religious rights of these individuals.”
Campolo and Guidry argued that concerns for equality in conducting business outweigh the personal convictions of the private business owner. For them, the state and local authority to issue business permits implies that the state grants the privilege of conducting business and can require equal treatment of potential customers.
“That baker is operating with a license that was granted by the state,” Campolo said. “The state represents what? All the people. If the privilege of baking cakes is given by all the people, then all the people should have access to the service that is provided.”
Guidry also disagreed with Weber on the issue of private businesses. She affirmed the right of individual clergy members and churches to decide what marriages they choose to solemnize. However, she argued that individual protections do not extend to individual business owners or to elected officials tasked with granting marriage licenses.
Conservative lawmakers in several states have sought new laws to clarify religious freedoms and protect business owners who have moral objections. Guidry called such laws a “license to discriminate” against the LGBT community.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.)

10/11/2017 8:37:34 AM by Gary D. Myers, NOBTS | with 1 comments

ISIS surrenders in droves at stronghold in Iraq

October 11 2017 by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press

Islamic State fighters surrendered en masse to Kurdish Iraqi forces in Hawija, shriveling the jihad army to perhaps a 10th of its size when it invaded Iraq in 2014, according to widespread news reports.
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About 1,000 jihadists surrendered over a span of three days as Iraq recaptured the Islamic State stronghold of Hawija Oct. 5, ending two weeks of fighting, the New York Times reported Oct. 8.
Today, a scant 3,000 Islamic State troops (also known as IS or ISIS) remain in Iraq, controlling a few towns and villages stretching along the Euphrates River in Iraq and Syria, USA Today reported after the Kurdish victory. ISIS troops were estimated to number 30,000 when the brutal terrorists first attempted in 2014 to establish caliphates or governments ruled by Sharia law in Iraq, killing and displacing Christians and other religious minorities.
The surrender came as the trials began in northern Nigeria for about 1,600 captured suspects of Boko Haram, the Associated Press reported Oct. 10. Boko Haram, which has fought to establish caliphates in the region of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad over the past decade or so, has pledged allegiance to ISIS.
The defeated ISIS troops in Iraq are in sharp contrast to the reputation ISIS had built of suicide bombers and fighters proud to die for the cause of radical Islam, the Times reported. About a fourth of those who surrendered in Hawija were hardline jihadists, with the remaining composed of reluctant conscripts and men who described themselves as cooks or clerks, or said they had only fought a few months, the Times said.
During interrogations after their surrender, one ISIS member said the group’s terror in Iraq was coming to an end, wrote Times reporter Rod Nordland as an eyewitness to interrogations in Dibis, Iraq.
“This is the end of this state,” Nordland quoted a fighter identified as Maytham Muhammed Mohemin. “I believe if the [ISIS] governors are telling us to surrender, it really means that this is the end.”
But ISIS is not considered defeated. Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, commander of the U.S.-backed military coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq, said terrorist groups such as ISIS typically regenerate leaders and recruit new waves of fighters.
Destroying the group that has recruited members internationally, including an estimated 250 from the U.S., “won’t be easy and won’t be quick,” USA Today quoted Funk Oct. 5.
The military victory was the latest in a string of successful Iraqi offenses against ISIS. Most recently, Iraqi forces aided by Shiite militia defeated ISIS in Tal Afar in late August. In July, coalition forces retook Mosul from ISIS.
ISIS had displaced as many as 600,000 to 1.2 million religious minorities including Christians from Iraq as of June, according to a study conducted jointly by non-governmental organizations Minority Rights Group International, the Institute for International Law and Human Rights, No Peace Without Justice and the Unrepresented Nations and People Organization. As many as 3 million people had been internally displaced in Iraq since June 2014, according to the study.
Of Iraq’s estimated 39 million people, about 250,000 are Christian, according to religious freedom watchdog Open Doors USA. As recently as the 1990s, Christians in Iraq numbered 1.5 million, according to Open Doors.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)

10/11/2017 7:06:37 AM by Diana Chandler, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

Clergy housing allowance struck down again

October 10 2017 by Seth Brown, BR Content Editor

Updated Oct. 10, 3:40 p.m.

A district judge decided Oct. 6 that an income tax exemption for clergy housing is unconstitutional because it favors religious employees over similarly situated secular employees.
“Under current law,” U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb wrote in the ruling, “that type of provision violates the establishment clause.”
This is the second time Crabb, who serves the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, has ruled against the tax break for ministers. The first came in 2013, but was overturned the following year in appeals court.
The parsonage exclusion, enacted in 1954, allows ministers to exempt payments designated as housing allowance from their taxable income. It saves clergy an estimated $800 million annually, according to Christianity Today.

​“This ruling is a sad development that represents a needless challenge to hard-working pastors devoted to serving their communities,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a press release.

“More still, this ruling is wrong: the housing allowance is in no sense the government establishing religion. The allowance is neutral, applies indiscriminately to all religions and removing it would disproportionately harm clergy in small congregations across the country. We will continue to fight to protect the housing allowance, because we believe clergy are essential for flourishing, vibrant communities.”
Annie Gaylor and Dan Barker, married co-presidents of an atheist group, Freedom From Religion Foundation, filed a legal complaint after the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) denied their attempt to claim a housing allowance as an exclusion on an income tax return.
The IRS argued the housing exemption applies to “ministers of the gospel,” a historically Christian phrase the agency interprets to include clergy of other faiths. Gaylor and Barker are not clergy and not employed by a church, according to letters cited in the ruling.
The case is known as Gaylor v. Mnuchin.
O.S. Hawkins, president of GuideStone Financial Resources, said “The housing allowance, far from being a government endorsement of religion, as Judge Crabb contends, actually removes government from the equation. Were it not for the housing allowance, the government would be imposing a tax on religious employers and their employees that is not imposed on non-religious employers.”
GuideStone has monitored this case and its predecessor, said Hawkins in a press release, and will file a friend-of-the-court brief on appeal with a coalition of similar organizations.

10/10/2017 9:47:18 AM by Seth Brown, BR Content Editor | with 1 comments

Federal memo on religious freedom draws praise

October 10 2017 by Tom Strode, Baptist Press

Southern Baptist and other religious freedom defenders have hailed the Trump administration’s new guidelines to safeguard in federal law the free exercise of religion.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum Oct. 6 to executive branch departments and agencies that provides guidance on religious liberty protections. In introducing 20 principles of religious freedom, Sessions said, “[T]o the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity, including employment, contracting and programming.”
Supporters of the guidelines commended them for their interpretation of religious freedom.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), hailed the guidance as “a great development.” He tweeted, “These principles are right in line w/First Amendment.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. – a Southern Baptist – applauded the memorandum, saying, “It is not the place of government to determine what a person’s religion requires. The ability to live out your faith, or have no faith, is a First Amendment right; the federal government must honor that as much as possible, especially when there are reasonable accommodations.”
Michael Farris, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, said, “All Americans should have the freedom to peacefully live and work consistent with their faith without fear of government punishment. The guidance that the Trump administration issued today helps protect that First Amendment freedom.”
Sessions issued the guidance to implement a May executive order in which President Donald Trump said his administration’s policy will be to enforce vigorously “robust protections for religious freedom” in federal law.
The memorandum should offer protection at the federal level for religious liberty in its growing confrontation with sexual liberty, especially regarding same-sex marriage and those who object to it on biblical grounds. It also signals an apparent return to the treatment of religious freedom prior to some controversial policies during the eight years of the Obama administration.
The attorney general released the guidelines the same day the Trump administration issued new rules to protect objectors to the abortion/contraception mandate instituted under President Barack Obama. The expanded exemptions for conscience rights came after a six-year battle against a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulation that required employers to provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives, including those with mechanisms that can potentially induce abortions.
The guidance on the HHS mandate – which was challenged in court by GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, four Baptist universities and nearly 90 other non-profit organizations – said the administration decided the government’s interest “in applying contraceptive coverage requirements to the plans of certain entities and individuals does not outweigh the sincerely held moral objections of those entities and individuals.”
Sessions’ religious freedom guidance followed another significant memorandum from his office by two days – this one regarding protection of transgender employment rights.
In his Oct. 4 memorandum to U.S. attorneys, the attorney general announced he was withdrawing and reversing a 2014 guidance from then-Attorney General Eric Holder that ruled a federal ban on workplace sex discrimination encompasses gender identity. Title VII, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in employment, “does not prohibit discrimination based on gender identity per se. This is a conclusion of law, not policy,” Sessions said.
Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights decried Sessions’ memorandums on transgender rights and religious liberty.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), described the religious freedom guidance as “a sweeping license to discriminate.” He said it “will enable systematic, government-wide discrimination that will have a devastating impact on [LGBT] people and their families.”
HRC is the country’s largest political organization for LGBT rights.
The 20 principles Sessions listed in his memorandum included six regarding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 federal law that requires the government to have a compelling interest and use the narrowest possible means in burdening a person’s religious exercise. The principles on religious liberty included:

  • “The freedom of religion extends to persons and organizations.
  • “Government may not target individuals or entities for special disabilities based on their religion.
  • “RFRA does not permit the government to second-guess the reasonableness of a religious belief.
  • “RFRA applies even where a religious adherent seeks an exemption from a legal obligation requiring the adherent to confer benefits on third parties.
  • “Religious employers are entitled to employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employer’s precepts.”

Andrew Walker, the ERLC’s director of policy studies, described the principles as “a historical reaffirmation of government’s posture toward religious liberty” and “a return to normalcy.”
The Obama administration “went out of its way to undermine religious freedom to further the cause of the sexual revolution,” Walker wrote in a post at the ERLC’s website.
The attorney general’s religious freedom guidance is available to read at justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1001891/download?utm_ medium= email&utm_source=govdelivery.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)

10/10/2017 9:43:57 AM by Tom Strode, Baptist Press | with 0 comments

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