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Lee won’t use ‘biblical’ victim witness standard if governor

Republican businessman Bill Lee speaks during the final gubernatorial debate at Belmont University Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, Pool)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A pastor who’s an adviser to Tennessee GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee says the Bible requires victims of sexual misconduct and other offenses to have at least two or three witnesses.

Steve Berger, pastor of Franklin-based Grace Chapel, made the remarks during a Sept. 30 sermon that focused on the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against the judge.

Berger’s sermon started off saying the requirement applied to accusations against church elders, but he later applied the requirement to Kavanaugh and stated Ford was not meeting biblical requirements.

“But do you understand, beloved, that we either have two to three witnesses for civility or we have no need of witnesses and have injustices ready to happen every single time,” Berger said in his sermon. “In our broken world, this is the best we’ve got.”

Berger is one of Lee’s advisers on engaging and recruiting faith-based organizations to address state issues. He’s also pastor of the church that Lee attends regularly. Berger did not return a voicemail from The Associated Press.

In a campaign where religious faith has become a defining characteristic of the Republican candidate, Lee describes the governor’s office as a “calling.” However, his campaign said Monday the biblical requirement cited by Berger would not become the state standard if Lee is elected governor on Nov. 6.

In a follow up statement to the AP, Lee stressed that sexual misconduct allegations would be taken seriously under his leadership.

“In my administration, there will be a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual misconduct,” Lee said. “My daughter is entering the workplace and I want her to have every opportunity that her male counterparts would, including a safe work environment. The dignity of women must be respected, and I’m thankful the Me Too movement has advanced that.”

Lee’s promise comes at a time when states across the country are facing scrutiny for how they handle allegations of sexual misconduct amid the explosion of the #MeToo anti-harassment movement.

In Tennessee, the issue has become a key talking point in the high-profile U.S. Senate race. Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn has criticized former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s handling of sexual misconduct complaints during his administration. Bredesen has countered that he protected victims throughout his tenure.

Lee is running against Democrat and former Nashville mayor Karl Dean, who is Catholic. Dean has not made his faith a part of his campaign to the degree Lee has, such as when asked about his stances on policy issues such as the death penalty — where the Catholic Church dictates that the death penalty is never acceptable.

“My faith is important to me and I believe faith based initiatives have a place in government but the government doesn’t get to pick the faith or remove the need to follow the constitutional authority regarding church and states entanglements,” Dean said in a written statement Tuesday.

Dean says his political track record shows how he would lead Tennessee.

Lee, who’s making his first run in Tennessee politics, won the competitive Republican primary for Tennessee governor earlier this year. Many credited the victory to his faith-based, positive message.

“My faith is the most important thing in my life, and that won’t change when I’m the governor,” Lee said in one early ad, set in front of his childhood church. “In recent times, too often the voice of the faithful has been made to feel increasingly unwelcome in the public square, and that’s a mistake. The phrase ‘separation of church and state’ has been twisted. It was intended to keep the government out of church, but not to keep people of faith out of the government.”

Lee has proposed creating an “Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives” that would be housed inside the governor’s office. It’s unclear if Berger — who had a guest speaker giving a sermon on “Understanding Radical Islam” in 2015 at his church and is a board member of a “gay conversion therapy” coalition — would be part of that initiative.

In his Tuesday statement, Dean said Lee should clarify that an office of faith-based initiatives would represent all faiths and follow constitutional authority.

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This story has been corrected to show Berger did not give a sermon on “Understanding Radical Islam” in 2015, but instead Berger had a guest speaker give the sermon.

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.



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