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Biden address could touch on issues important to Southern Baptists, Leatherwood says

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NASHVILLE (BP) – President Biden could offer in his State of the Union address some messages Southern Baptists would welcome despite the vast disagreements they have with his administration, Brent Leatherwood said Thursday (Feb. 2).

When the president speaks before a joint session of Congress Feb. 7, he will do so with a two-year record of promoting abortion access, gay and transgender issues and same-sex marriage. Those positions clash with the beliefs Southern Baptists have long held and have endorsed in resolutions repeatedly approved at the Convention’s annual meetings.

In spite of those significant differences, Biden could find an appreciative audience among Southern Baptists if he were to deliver the right messages on such issues as immigration reform and conscience protection, said Leatherwood, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). He offered his assessment during an online question-and-answer session with Baptist communicators.

The president could return to a discussion some U.S. senators held late last year about a framework “centered on matching much-needed border security funding and the creation of centers to process individuals that are encountered on the border” with a “solution for our neighbors” who were brought to the United States as children and are known as Dreamers, Leatherwood said.

He thinks that “would be well received by the SBC and by our churches, because I know so many ministries that are serving migrants, I know so many churches that are affected by the surges at the border,” Leatherwood told the online audience.

“I think also acknowledging that people should not be asked to violate their consciences and respecting that as a principle would be something that would be really well received by our churches,” he said. “Whether it is something like the transgender mandate or just more recently where we’ve been talking about the proliferation of chemical abortion pills, I think if the administration would acknowledge that there are Christians who work in these fields that should not be asked to violate their conscience that would be really well received.”

The Biden administration has revived an Obama-era rule that required doctors and hospitals to perform gender-transition procedures, as well as abortions, over their objections. Two federal appeals courts have blocked enforcement of the rule, which became known as the “transgender mandate.” The administration also changed the rules in January to permit retail pharmacies to carry and dispense the abortion pill. The ERLC has opposed both executive branch policies.

Criminal justice reform is another issue on which Biden could support more action that would be welcomed by Southern Baptists and might achieve progress in Congress, said Hannah Daniel, the ERLC’s policy manager.

“This is something we as Southern Baptists have a history of caring about,” she told the communicators. “We were pretty involved in the passage of the First Step Act a number of years ago. And we have advocated for additional measures that would bring greater levels of justice and safety to our communities.”

The First Step Act – approved overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by President Trump in 2018 – was designed to promote the rehabilitation and societal re-entry of prisoners while maintaining public safety. The measure, supported by the ERLC and a diverse coalition, provided training for inmates and reformed some sentencing requirements, including in the case of certain drug offenses.

Daniel anticipates the president will focus in his State of the Union speech on a matter she “would not like to see,” she said.

Biden undoubtedly will mention this is the first State of the Union since the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion that legalized abortion nationwide, Daniel said. He will emphasize “all the actions that the administration has taken since that decision came down to promote abortion,” she said.

Since the high court’s June 2022 decision, Biden and his administration have instituted a series of orders and rules seeking to protect expansive abortion rights. The justices’ ruling returned abortion policy to the states.

Hearing the president’s priorities for the year in the State of the Union will benefit the ERLC’s work, Leatherwood said.

“[W]e will know, ‘OK, this is what the president has said,’” Leatherwood told the online audience. “It gives us a sense to know where we’re going to need to speak … more forthrightly, what we may need to publicly oppose and say so through media outlets like Baptist Press and our state Baptist papers.”

The question-and-answer session was held three days after the ERLC issued its 2023 Public Policy Agenda. The document covers issues divided into four categories of priorities: Religious liberty; sanctity of human life; family and marriage; and human dignity.