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Clergy clash on “religious liberty” efforts at Georgia Capitol

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Georgia clergy split over “religious liberty” efforts at the state Capitol drew a distinct line Wednesday, as supporters issued a battle cry over “a war on Christianity” that left critics scoffing.

On what the Georgia Baptist Convention called its first annual Georgia Baptist Pastor's Day, dozens gathered to hear the group's leaders pledge full support for passage of House Bill 29, sponsored by state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta.

The bill seeks to prevent government intrusion on faith-based beliefs by writing religious expression into state law — beyond those already contained in both the U.S. and state constitutions.

Teasley said the bill would apply only to government and not, say, a small business owner who refuses service to a customer. Advocates have seized on the recent firing of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, who lost his job over actions related to a self-published religious book that many construed as anti-gay.

While few lawmakers have publicly stepped forward to support Cochran, state Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, gave every member of his chamber an autographed copy of Cochran's book so that they could make up their own minds on its message, he said.

“If there has been discrimination in this country, quite honestly, it has been against people of Christian faith, and it must stop,” said J. Robert White, the state baptist convention’s executive director. Opponents, he added, “are fear-mongering and have not one single argument to back their claim.”

Across the Capitol, however, more than a dozen other clergy — including Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics and Jews — gathered to denounce what they called an unnecessary and discriminatory bill.

“The people in my church don’t feel like we are at war,” said the Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Decatur. “They are more concerned with making sure our faith contributes to a common good for all people.”

The issue has flared as both sides have ratcheted up rhetoric related to the issue. Teasley and state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, both took to the floor of their respective chambers this week to denounce an advertisement — which ran in local media — that claimed the bill would allow child abusers to escape prosecution by citing religious beliefs.

Georgia’s powerful business community has already issued a warning over efforts to revive the legislation, which it helped defeat last year after hometown heavyweights Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Home Depot spoke out against it.

The issue flared here last year in the wake of national attention over lawsuits against businesses that refused to provide goods or services for gay weddings or gay advocacy groups.

Critics say its passage, regardless of Teasley’s intentions, would open the door for private business owners to discriminate against gays and other minorities — by citing religious beliefs — and make the Peach State a national laughingstock and economic pariah.

The Rev. Timothy McDonald of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta referenced how some people used the Bible to justify slavery. He pushed back against the idea that Christians are under siege.

“These are the same people who said there was a war against the South when slavery was outlawed,” he said. “I’m not surprised they would say that. They were wrong then. They are wrong now.”