Baptists have long been known for their fierce commitment to religious liberty, particularly their willingness to protect it when it is threatened. That legacy was on display last May when scores of Texas pastors—many of them Southern Baptists—traveled to the state capitol to support a measure drafted to protect pastors and their churches from the legal fall-out associated with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage.
It was the only piece of religious liberty legislation that received a passing vote in the 84th session of the Texas legislature. The Pastor Protection Act, hobbled by House leadership but passed by the Senate as SB 2065, was intended to bolster protections afforded pastors and churches in the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom and Restoration statute. But with the Supreme Court poised in May to strike down all bans on same-sex marriage, Texas clergy and legal advisors believed more needed to be done to protect those who would say “no” to LGBT activists.
Mike Weaver, pastor of Wild Ride Ministries in Harper, likened the role of pastors to that of the watchman on the wall in Ezekiel 33. He was among the pastors who traveled to Austin to register their support of the bill.
“If he sees trouble coming and doesn’t warn the people, their blood is on his hands. If he sees it and warns them, their blood is on their own hands,” Weaver said. “How can we see and know about so many issues and just sit by and watch? We’ve got what we’ve got because we’ve allowed it to happen by being disengaged.”
Cindy Asmussen, SBTC’s Texas Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee advisor, credits the pastors with the passage of SB 2065.
“The law protects Texas pastors, clergy, churches, religious organizations and their employees from being forced to solemnize, perform or celebrate a marriage that violates their religious beliefs,” Asmussen said.
In light of the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision legalizing same-sex marriage—handed down only two weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB 2065 into law—the Texas legislature was timely in an effort to forestall the many problems churches could face going forward.
Photographers and bakers in Oregon, Colorado and Washington have been sued for refusing to provide services for same-sex weddings, leaving evangelicals wondering what would happen if, when same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, a pastor refused to perform the wedding or allow use of church facilities.
Craig Etheredge, pastor of First Baptist Church in Colleyville, was one of almost 90 people who traveled to Austin in support of the House version of SB 2065 during the May 4 State Affairs Committee hearing. Only 10 people registered to oppose the bill.
“While this is a great step for the state of Texas, my sources in the Texas legislature expect the law to come under fire in the days to come,” he said. “It is important that the Christian community continue to clearly articulate the gospel message and God’s design for biblical marriage. God is the one that defines marriage, not the courts of men.”
Many pastors and their congregations are unsure of their role in the political process and how much they should attempt to influence government on its various levels. Within the Southern Baptist Convention political dialogue has shifted from the confrontational style of the Moral Majority, led by Virginia pastor Jerry Falwell, in the 1980s to the “convictional kindness” urged today by Russell Moore, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
In a 2013 Wall Street Journal interview, Moore said, “We [Southern Baptists] are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it.” He reaffirmed his belief in traditional marriage, but added that it shouldn’t be a “culture war political issue.”
Etheredge urged involvement by those he knows, both in and out of his church, but especially other pastors.
“It is imperative that pastors be involved in the defense of religious freedom,” he said. “While we have the opportunity to vote, it is imperative that Christ followers vote for candidates that will represent godly values and morals in our country.”
Scott Sanford, a state representative and executive pastor for stewardship and operations at Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church in McKinney, said
pastors can play a role in educating their congregations as to who is running for office and where they stand on key issues.
Pastors should host a meeting with candidates and elected officials at churches and “just talk,” he advised, cautioning them to open a dialogue instead of a gripe list.
That conversation, from which the pastors can glean helpful information to pass on to their church members, can open the channels of communication. Sanford said enough pastors, priests and bishops had established relationships with their legislators that when they spoke during the committee hearing, lawmakers listened.
The same influence was needed on other legislation, especially one Sanford authored offering legal protection for faith-based adoption agencies that refuse to facilitate adoption or foster care by same-sex couples. The legislation stalled, but he plans to reintroduce it in the next session.
Still more needs to be done, Sanford said, hopeful that lawmakers will address the conflict Christians face when they work as government employees. He knows from experience that the insight and influence of Texas pastors will be necessary on a continual basis.