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Values of SBC host city underscored in concerns over proposed ordinance

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A proposed Nashville ordinance validating the homosexual lifestyle is troubling Southern Baptist Convention officials charged with the responsibility of recommending convention sites for the SBC annual meeting.

Jack Wilkerson, vice president for business and finance of the SBC Executive Committee, formally stated his concerns in correspondence Jan. 8 with officials of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I have personally worked to convey my belief that Nashville is a family friendly community and one which would provide a welcoming environment for our messengers and families attending the SBC annual meeting scheduled for Nashville in 2005,” Wilkerson told Baptist Press.

“The Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau provided excellent support in that effort, and the mayor’s office also was extremely supportive, with Mayor Purcell having personally attended the news conference announcing the Executive Committee recommendation of Nashville to the convention. I would hate to see the council adopt this pro-homosexual amendment undercutting our team effort and diminishing Nashville’s national reputation as pro-family.”

“We have, in past years, convened the Southern Baptist Convention in cities where every lifestyle is embraced as ‘normal,'” Wilkerson wrote in his letter to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, “but our constituents are telling us today that they do not want to meet in cities where our meeting has to constantly deal with these issues.”

If undertaken, a formal initiative to move the 2005 SBC annual meeting from Nashville would have to begin with the SBC Executive Committee, an 81-member body which meets twice yearly in Nashville. If recommended by the Executive Committee, the move would require approval by messengers during an SBC annual meeting.

Under the Nashville proposal, which has passed two of the required three readings, the words “sexual orientation” 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 amended law would seek to protect homosexuals from the threat of being fired or denied housing because of their lifestyle. A final council vote is set for Jan. 21.

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.

Wilkerson said the SBC is very careful in selecting venue sites and hotels that compliment a family friendly environment.

“It has and will continue to be our policy to express displeasure with activities that violate biblical principles or which have a negative impact on the fabric of family life,” Wilkerson told Baptist Press.

In 2002, the SBC canceled a contract with a Howard Johnson hotel in St. Louis when the hotel hosted an inappropriate conference. In 2001, a hotel contract in New Orleans was canceled because of non-friendly family activities, Wilkerson noted.

In a memorandum assessing the proposed Nashville ordinance, 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.”

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.

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 received two favorable council votes.

“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 even if it had 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.”

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