Missouri voters narrowly repeal gay rights ordinance despite opponent's scare tactics

by Vanessa Rodriguez, |
Christians Uniting for Political Action campaigned alongside a number of Springfield pastors to encourage people of faith to vote for the repeal of the city's sexual orientation and gender identity law. | Christians Uniting for Political Action website

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (Christian Examiner) -- Only six months after city law expanded its nondiscrimination ordinance to include legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, divided Springfield voters flooded polls April 7 to determine whether the law would be repealed or upheld. 

Although Springfield City Council initially voted 6-3 to approve the measure in October, ordinance opponents voted narrowly to turn back that legislation this week with final results totaling 51.4 to 48.6 percent in favor of repealing the law.

The win was a "victory for the faith community," according to Justin Burnett, who won a council seat in the election.

"A lot of people of faith thought this ordinance neglected their constitutional and God-given rights," Burnett told the Springfield News-Leader.

Parties on both sides of the issue heavily campaigned for voter support.

Among the groups organizing to support the repeal was Christians Uniting for Political Action. The organization could not be reached for comment, but provided a number of resources online to educate voters on the impact of a "yes" vote on the repeal.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, the pastor of Springfield's James River Church, John Lindell, urged the 9,000 member congregation to vote for repealing the sexual orientation, gender identity law, during a March 15 sermon.

According to the News-Leader, Lindell's message was later endorsed by a number of pastors after George O. Wood, a leader within the Assemblies of God denomination, sent a letter to 35 area pastors asking them to listen to the sermon and encourage members to vote for repealing the law.

"While it may have been the intent of city council to exempt religious organizations, they left open the real prospect that litigious plaintiffs or a hostile judge might utilize the ordinance's vagueness and silence in a way that the city council may not have intended," Wood's letter says.

Some brazen critics likened repealing the law to the recent battle over religious freedoms in Indiana and Arkansas. Others implored scare tactics to deter pastors and church leaders from encouraging members to vote for the repeal and cited misinformation that churches could lose their tax-exempt status if a pastors urged congregants to support the law's repeal.

Eventually religious leaders sought legal counsel from The Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm based in Scottsdale, Arizona, which specializes in religious freedom issues.

The ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb addressed area pastors in a letter discrediting the claims that repercussions awaited those who addressed politics from the pulpit.

"Pastors and churches shouldn't live in fear of being punished or penalized by the government when they express fundamental tenets of their faith," wrote ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb. "They are free to talk about important social and cultural issues without fear of having their tax-exempt status revoked. Anyone who claims otherwise simply doesn't understand the law."

Holcomb stated in her letter that no church to date had lost tax exempt status because of their political activity and further explained IRS restrictions and lobbying limitations at length.

"You did not surrender your First Amendment freedoms by entering the pastorate, nor do you endanger your church's tax-exempt status by engaging on civic issues," the ADF letter to pastors stated.