- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

Southern Baptists are threatening to cancel a massive convention in Nashville, Tenn., if the City Council passes legislation giving more rights to homosexuals.
The Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination of 16 million members headquartered in Nashville, opposes the homosexual rights measure, which has survived two readings and is set for a vote Jan. 21.
Jack Wilkerson, SBC convention manager, informed the Nashville Visitors and Convention Bureau on Wednesday that passage of the bill could imperil future dealings with the city, including the gathering of 10,000 Southern Baptists set for 2005.
"We are not angry and the Southern Baptists have not threatened anybody," Mr. Wilkerson said. "That is not our heart. We have simply informed the Nashville visitors bureau that we hadsold the city on it being a family-friendly city. If that legislation would pass, our board of directors would possibly ask us to reconsider the city."
City Council member Chris Ferrell, himself a Southern Baptist, proposed the new ordinance.
"I expected there to be some opposition," said Mr. Ferrell, who notes that he is not homosexual. "But I am a little surprised institutions such as the Southern Baptists would object to fair and equal treatment for all people."
Constituents asked him last year to add sexual orientation and disability to the city code on fair employment and housing practices, Mr. Ferrell said.
The current law says people can't be discriminated against because of "race, color, religion, national origin or sex." The proposed change would substitute "sexual orientation and disability" for "sex."
The SBC holds the largest annual meetings of all religious groups. Delegates from the denomination's 42,000 churches spend $9 million to $11 million on hotels, food and entertainment during an annual five-day convention in June.
The 2005 convention would be the SBC's first in Nashville, where 125 persons are employed at five SBC agencies and about 1,500 work at LifeWay Christian Resources, the denomination's publishing arm.
Tennessee, where 1.3 million Southern Baptists constitute 27.5 percent of the population, ranks among the top five states in number of SBC adherents and in their share of the total population.
The bill has been criticized for containing no exemption for religious groups. Mr. Ferrell said he would try to add one or, failing that, propose a new bill with the exemption included.
"This bill is about employment and housing," he said. "It doesn't affect anyone's First Amendment rights to free speech, nor will it affect First Amendment rights to exercise of religion. If someone violates criminal law in this city, they will be arrested for that. A lot of the objections to the bill have nothing to do with what it actually does."
SBC executives fear a replay of their 2002 convention in St. Louis, where 50 pro-homosexual demonstrators, including 12 who made their way onto the convention floor, disrupted the meeting.
"Our people desire to have an environment where they could come and conduct their business and not be interrupted," Mr. Wilkerson said.
"It is not so much the [proposed] ordinance, it's what happens afterwards, depending on the legal systems and the statutes on the books. The city of St. Louis has a Class D felony statute for interrupting a religious meeting, but they were permitted by their legal system to plead guilty to a lesser offense."
A local university associated with the Church of Christ denomination also opposes the ordinance.
"But it'd not be a fair characterization to say all religious people in this city view this issue the same way," Mr. Ferrell said. "Many ministers I've heard from support this ordinance and believe discrimination is wrong."

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