Atlanta’s Rev. Giglio withdraws from Obama inauguration amid controversy

Staff writer Wayne Washington contributed to this article.

Almost as suddenly as he was chosen, the Atlanta evangelical pastor selected to deliver the benediction at President Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 21 is now out of the picture.

The Rev. Louie Giglio, whose selection to deliver the inaugural benediction sparked nationwide controversy because of his conservative views on homosexuality, dropped out of the coveted spot on Thursday.

“Neither I, nor our team, feel it best serves the core message and goals we are seeking to accomplish to be in a fight on an issue not of our choosing, thus I respectfully withdraw my acceptance of the President’s invitation,” Giglio said in a statement delivered to the White House. “I will continue to pray regularly for the President.”

The decision, which the President’s Inaugural Committee stressed was Giglio’s own, was a display in the swiftness of Washington damage control.

On Tuesday, it was announced that Giglio, pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, was chosen to give the benediction. The announcement came just days after Giglio’s church hosted more than 60,000 people at a youth-oriented event at the Georgia Dome.

On Wednesday afternoon, the website ThinkProgress reported that Giglio had given a sermon in the 1990s advocating “recovery” for gays and comparing them to alcoholics. Giglio also said gays will go to hell and called the gay rights movement “not benevolent” in advocating that “the homosexual lifestyle becomes accepted as a norm in our society.”

By Thursday morning, Giglio was out.

The White House declined to comment on the decision and referred reporters to the President’s Inaugural Committee, which is organizing the festivities.

Giglio was asked to deliver the benediction in large part because of “his leadership in combating human trafficking around the world,” PIC spokeswoman Addie Whisenant said in a statement.

Giglio, who raised $3.3 million for the fight against human trafficking, was asked by Obama to pray during an Easter breakfast at the White House last April. The pastor has helped organize international conferences that draw tens of thousands of young Christians, has co-founded a Christian music label and has written several books.

Whisenant said Giglio was vetted but the PIC did not know about the sermon highlighted by ThinkProgress. “We were not aware of Pastor Giglio’s past comments at the time of his selection and they don’t reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this Inaugural,” Whisenant said in a statement.

Neither Giglio nor his spokeswoman would comment directly about where the pastor stands today on the issue of homosexuality. “Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past 15 years, ” Giglio said in his statement to the White House.

Later Thursday, directly addressing his congregation on his church’s blog, Giglio wrote: “The issue of homosexuality (which a particular message of mine some 20 years ago addressed) is one of the most difficult our nation will navigate. However, individuals’ rights of freedom, and the collective right to hold differing views on any subject, is a critical balance we, as a people, must recover and preserve.

“As a pastor, my mission is to love people, and lead them well, while lifting up the name of Jesus above anything else. I’m confident that anyone who knows me or has listened to the multitude of messages I have given in the last decade would most likely conclude that I am not easily characterized as being opposed to people — any people.”

The uproar over Giglio was denounced by some.

Ruth Malhotra of Atlanta, who has followed Giglio’s teachings for 14 years and is actively involved in the Passion movement, said the pastor has an “uncompromising commitment to biblical truth,” which is now being attacked.

“The message sent by homosexual activists who opposed Giglio’s participation in President Obama’s inauguration is clear: Unless you embrace, applaud, and advocate for the homosexual lifestyle and same-sex marriage, your views, your voice, and even your work on behalf of the poor and suffering are not welcome in the public square,” said Malhotra, 28.

Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, was equally outraged. “Catholic, Evangelical Protestant and Orthodox churches all actively proclaim that sexual intimacy within the marriage of one man and one woman is the only biblically-sanctioned human sexual behavior,”Perkins said. “Are the scores of millions of Americans who affirm these teachings no longer welcome at the inauguration of our president?”

But Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based group that advocates for gay rights, said Giglio made “the right decision” in pulling out.

“Participants in the Inaugural festivities should unite rather than divide,” Griffin said.

In 2009, Obama sought a balance with his choices from the religious community for his first inauguration.

The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery of Atlanta, a civil rights icon, was chosen to give the benediction. California pastor Rick Warren gave the invocation and drew criticism from gay rights groups because he was a vocal backer of California’s ballot measure banning gay marriage. And Obama picked New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson — the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church — to give another invocation during the inaugural weekend.

Lowery, who said he had never heard of Giglio before this week, called the Passion City Church pastor’s withdrawal from the inauguration unfortunate. “It shows that the vetting was inadequate,” Lowery said.

The inaugural committee did not immediately announce a replacement for Giglio. The decision will be closely watched.