January 10, 2003, Friday, BC cycle
Baptists, gay activists clash over anti-discrimination ordinance
SECTION: Domestic News
LENGTH: 717 words
DATELINE: NASHVILLE, Tenn.
A plan to add sexual orientation to the city’s list of classes protected from job and housing discrimination has angered the Southern Baptist Convention, which may reconsider staging its 2005 annual meeting in its hometown.
Bill Merrell, an SBC vice president, said the possibility was raised in an official communication to a Nashville tourism official that said: “This alters the nature of Nashville as a convention city for us.”
With about 16 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
About 150 employees of the convention’s executive committee work in Nashville, as do about 1,500 employees of LifeWay Christian Resources, the denomination’s publishing arm. LifeWay was established in Nashville in 1891, while the executive committee has been based in the city since 1927.
Baptists and other conservative religious leaders are fighting a proposed Nashville anti-discrimination ordinance that supporters say has a simple purpose: ensuring equal opportunity for housing and employment. The ordinance has passed two of three required city council readings.
Opponents say the ordinance, in its present form, would violate the U.S. Constitution by requiring religious groups who consider homosexuality a sin to hire gays and lesbians.
The measure’s lead sponsor, Councilman Chris Ferrell, said that’s not the intent and he will add a religious exemption before the final vote Jan. 21.
“I’m not going to be in the position of telling anybody what their theology has to be,” Ferrell said.
Merrell said Baptist leaders see the ordinance, with or without the religious exemption, as “another attempt by pro-gay activists to secure the approval and affirmation of the broader culture of the homosexual lifestyle.”
He said the ordinance could turn Nashville into “the San Francisco of the Southeast.”
Nashville gay rights activist Abby R. Rubenfeld, a lesbian parent of two, was amused by the characterization.
“I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with San Francisco. It’s a lovely city,” said Rubenfeld, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney and Human Rights Campaign board member. “But this is not a trendsetting proposal.”
About 240 U.S. cities and counties have adopted anti-discrimination measures protecting gays, according to the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. Those include the Southern cities of Atlanta, Louisville, Ky., and Charleston, S.C.
Violation of Nashville’s ordinance likely wouldn’t allow employers or landlords to be sued and the maximum fine would be $50 before the city’s Human Rights Commission. But Rubenfeld said the ordinance is important as “a symbol of our community’s commitment to equality.”
Under Nashville’s existing employment and housing ordinance, people can’t be discriminated against because of their “race, color, religion, national origin or sex.” Under the proposal, the word “sex” would be dropped and “sexual orientation and disabilities” added.
“We’re not just talking about homosexuals. We’re talking about pedophiles, sex with dead people, sex with animals,” said Councilman Tony Derryberry, who opposes the ordinance.
Barrett Duke, vice president for research at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said companies could be forced to hire men who wear dresses. “Other even more repugnant deviations would be protected by this change as well, including bestiality and pedophilia,” Duke added.
But Ferrell said the proposal would not affect workplace dress codes. He dismissed the other claims as “blatant fear-mongering.”
“Much of what he’s talking about is a violation of criminal law,” he said. “This doesn’t change that at all.”
But it could change the Southern Baptist Convention’s meeting plans.
The convention voted last year to bring its annual meeting – an event that typically draws up to 15,000 Southern Baptists and pumps millions of dollars into the host site’s economy – to Nashville in 2005. It would mark the convention’s first-ever annual meeting in Nashville.
The Southern Baptists previously have met in Las Vegas and New Orleans.