NEW ORLEANS - A day after electing their first African-American president, Southern Baptists were considering a resolution Wednesday opposing the idea that gay rights are the same as civil rights.
The resolution up for a vote at the denomination's annual meeting in New Orleans affirms Southern Baptists' beliefs that marriage is "the exclusive union of one man and one woman" and that "all sexual behavior outside of marriage is sinful."
It acknowledges that gays and lesbians sometimes experience "unique struggles" but declares that they lack the "distinguishing features of classes entitled to special protections."
"It is regrettable that homosexual rights activists and those who are promoting the recognition of `same-sex marriage' have misappropriated the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement," the resolution states.
Another resolution to be considered Wednesday is intended to protect religious liberty. It includes a call for the U.S. Justice Department to cease efforts to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and for the Obama administration to ensure that military personnel and chaplains can freely express their religious convictions about homosexuality.
It also condemns the administration's mandate requiring religiously affiliated institutions, but not houses of worship, to provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans.
Leaders of several other faiths and Christian denominations, especially Roman Catholics, have also organized and filed lawsuits against Obama administration policies that they see as threatening religious expression.
David W. Key Sr., director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said that as gays and lesbians become accepted in the larger American society, the Southern Baptist Convention is trying to separate itself from some of the more hateful rhetoric while still staying true to its beliefs.
The resolution on civil rights includes a statement that the SBC stands against "any form or gay-bashing, whether disrespectful attitudes, hateful rhetoric, or hate-incited actions."
But even with those disclaimers, statements such as this one could hurt evangelism efforts because they are likely to be objectionable to many people who are "not necessarily affirming, but also not rejecting" of gay rights issues, Key said.
Key said the Southern Baptists have continued to be outspoken on issues regarding gays and lesbians where other denominations with similar beliefs have not made the same type of public statements or taken the same types of actions, such as a boycott of The Walt Disney Co. for its gay-friendly policies.
The civil rights resolution comes at the same time the 16-million strong Nashville-based denomination is taking stands in other areas that will help it reach out to new members and distance itself from its image as a denomination of Southern white conservatives.
The election of the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. on Tuesday as the first African American president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination was hailed as historic by denomination leaders who see it as a sign that Southern Baptists have truly moved beyond a divisive racial past.
In a news conference after the vote, Luter said he doesn't think his election is some kind of token gesture.
"If we stop appointing African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics to leadership positions after this, we've failed," he said. "... I promise you I'm going to do all that I can to make sure this is not just a one-and-done deal."
Delegates to the annual meeting also voted to adopt an alternative name for churches that feel the "Southern Baptist" title could be a turn-off to potential believers.
Supporters of the optional name "Great Commission Baptists" argued it would help missionaries and church planters to reach more people for Christ.
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