JACKSON, Miss. (Christian Examiner) – A group of nearly 30 Methodist ministers from the American South have penned an open letter in The Clarion Ledger claiming Mississippi's new religious freedom law (HB 1523) harkens back to a darker time in history when blacks were segregated.
This time, however, they claim members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) are in the crosshairs of discrimination.
In the column, published April 26, the ministers pointed to a letter written by 28 of their predecessors in January 1963, protesting the state's effort at blocking student James Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi. Meredith, a black student, was eventually allowed to enroll at Ole Miss, but not until the Kennedy administration deployed federal marshals and federalized National Guard troops to ensure Meredith's access to the Oxford school.
In the letter 53 years ago, the ministers appealed to the Methodist Book of Discipline's anti-racism statement proclaiming all men as "brothers."
Now, the new group of ministers – some of whom signed the letter in 1963 – claimed that "prophetic witness" of old has renewed their desire to intervene.
"With them, we stand against the powers and principalities of evil that seek to exclude those who are different because of their race, color, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender disability, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious affiliation," the letter said.
"As Christian and United Methodist ministers, we proclaim that Christ came to liberate all of creation, not just those we want Christ to liberate and redeem. Christ compels us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and he put no qualifications on that love. Christ served all, even those whom society deemed as sinful and untouchable. Many in our state seek to deny hospitality and welcome to rightful citizens of our state in the name of Christianity, which is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that we proclaim."
The 2012 Book of Discipline in the UMC rejects "injustice and discrimination of any kind" and claims "any attempt to legislate and sign into law discriminatory practices against any group of people is sinful."
The letter concludes with the ministers claiming that Christ compels the church to welcome all people.
The bill, however, has little if anything to do with welcoming different types of people into the church.
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Instead, proponents claim it protects the religious liberty of those who do not wish to support same-sex marriage with their labors or their activities as ministers of the Gospel.
The bill states the government will not intervene to force a person who objects to the solemnization of same-sex marriage to participate in the activity. It will also not force service providers, such as bakers, florists, and wedding coordinators, to participate in gay weddings.
Leaders within the UMC have been attempting to avoid a denominational split over same-sex marriage and LGBT issues since 2014.