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LifeWay, Nashville churches challenge move to protect sexual orientation


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A proposed change in Nashville law that supporters say will put the city in line with a nationwide move to prevent homosexuals from being fired or denied housing because of their lifestyle is headed for a final council vote Jan. 21.

Under the proposal, the words “sexual orientation” and “disability” would be added to Metro Nashville’s Fair Employment and Housing Law stipulating that people cannot be discriminated against because of their “race, color, religion, national origin or sex.” The word, “sex,” meanwhile, would be changed to “gender.”

The proposal does not exempt churches, religious organizations or Christian business owners who believe that homosexuality is a sin. The change could have a major impact on the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee and LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, both located in downtown Nashville.

In a memorandum, James P. Guenther, an attorney representing the SBC Executive Committee, and D. August Boto, vice president for convention policy with the Executive Committee, noted the lack of clarity and probable unconstitutionality in the proposed amendment to Metro Nashville codes.

“It will not at all be clear that the Executive Committee or LifeWay or one of our larger churches could use its religious discrimination exemption to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation,” they stated. “If the court interpreted the city law as the courts have interpreted federal law, a religious employer could not use its religious discrimination exemption to discriminate on the basis of sex, for example, and so one would think it likely the same result would be reached if a religious employer undertook to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference.”

Rob Phillips, LifeWay’s director of communications, stated, “We’re very concerned about the proposed ordinance that would add ‘sexual orientation’ to the list of legally protected classes. As it’s written, the ordinance contains no exemption for churches, church schools or other religious organizations, which means if the ordinance passes, religious organizations, including churches and organizations like LifeWay, would be forced to hire or retain persons whose lifestyles clearly conflict with the biblical standards we have upheld since 1891.”

LifeWay is the city’s 39th largest employer and its Nashville facilities encompass more than 1 million feet of floor space. The SBC entity has 1,513 regular and part-time employees in Nashville.

Thirteen states and dozens of cities have passed similar laws.

Metro Nashville councilman Chris Ferrell, one of the sponsors of the anti-discrimination measure, told the Nashville Tennessean he will make sure religious institutions are exempt from the proposal. They represent the largest body of opponents.

“This is a policy statement. It’s not a sledgehammer,” Ferrell told the newspaper. However, the bill, without religious exemptions, has already passed two of the three required readings.

“It’s not about lawsuits and heavy fines,” Ferrell said. “It’s about saying that in this city people are going to have equal access to jobs and housing.”

Boto, however, told Baptist Press that even if Ferrell were to make good on his promise of an amendment to exempt religious organizations, the ordinance as amended still would be objectionable.

“I am not certain of how the other cities have limited the terms ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender.’ What I do know is that these terms are without definition in the proposal before Nashville’s city council. Does the council really want to protect the right of a man who prefers to dress as a woman to apply for and obtain a job as a girls’ gym coach in a local junior high school? I don’t think so, and this is just one illustration of how awful the consequences could be with or without a religious institution exemption.”

A complaint of discrimination would go to Metro Nashville’s Human Relations Commission, basically a mediation service without enforcement power. While some say a violation could result in a $50 fine, officials say the commission’s authority is unclear.

A small number of Nashville council members disagree with the proposed policy. “I do truly believe it’s unconstitutional,” councilman Tony Derryberry told The Tennesseean. “We’re not just talking about homosexuals, we’re talking about pedophiles, sex with dead people, sex with animals.”

Barrett Duke, vice president for research at the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, also expressed concern about the proposed ordinance in a prepared statement.

“What is most disturbing about this particular change is that no one has even defined sexual orientation,” Duke noted. “In other words, sexual orientation means whatever a person wants it to mean, and those who disagree will bear the burden of proof to the contrary. So, if a company hired a man today, and that man showed up at work the next day wearing a dress, the company would find itself in violation of Nashville’s new law if it fired him, because the man could claim that he was simply expressing his particular sexual orientation by wearing a dress. Other even more repugnant deviations would be protected by this change as well, including bestiality and pedophilia.”

Duke also stated, “While other municipalities have broadened protections against job and housing discrimination to include sexual orientation, the proposed changes to Nashville’s Fair Employment and Housing Law include a much more insidious change. In addition to extending protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and disability, the proposal seeks to forbid discrimination in the workforce and housing based on gender. The current law provides protection from sex discrimination, but the proposed new term ‘gender’ broadens considerably the scope of that protection to include not only homosexuals but also people who are transgendered, bisexual, or any other “gender” someone may “discover” in the future.”

Duke added: “These changes to Nashville’s Fair Employment and Housing Law will diminish significantly Nashville’s reputation as a family friendly community. In their current form, the proposed changes do not even exempt religious organizations. In other words, a church or religious school would violate the law if it fired or refused to hire a homosexual, even though that person’s lifestyle was in direct violation of the teachings of Scripture.

“If Nashville adopts the changes,” Duke stated, “it will join the ranks of those cities that are undermining the moral fabric of our society and marginalizing the traditional family as our society’s foundation.”
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