JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri Baptist leaders and church members were among a crowd of religious liberty defenders who gathered at the state capitol, Feb. 23, to support a Missouri Senate resolution that protects religious organizations and individuals from being penalized for their biblical beliefs about marriage.
Senate Joint Resolution 39 (SJR-39), sponsored by Senator Bob Onder of Lake St. Louis, was taken up on the Missouri Senate floor March 7, and if it passes through both the Senate and the House, Missourians will have the opportunity to approve the bill this fall. If the resolution receives enough support from voters, it will become part of the Missouri Constitution.
According to SJR 39, the state of Missouri can’t penalize people or religious organizations for refusing, on the basis of their religious beliefs, to support or take part in same-sex weddings.
Several Missouri Baptists came out in support of religious liberty, providing testimony during a Senate committee hearing on the resolution. But they weren’t alone. Supporters also included—among others—George Paul Wood, vice president with the Assemblies of God and son to the president of the Worldwide Fellowship of the Assemblies of God, and Ashley McDonald, who represented the Missouri Farm Bureau. The day after the Senate committee hearing, Mike Hoey, communications director with the Missouri Catholic Conference, also announced his organization’s support for the bill.
Missouri Baptists supporting the bill included David Krueger, pastor of First Baptist Church, Linn, and chairman of the Missouri Baptist Convention’s (MBC) Christian Life Commission; Bonnie Lee, a member at Open Heart Baptist Church in Columbia; Michael Whitehead, who serves as legal counsel for the MBC; and Don Hinkle, Pathway editor and MBC public policy advisor.
“Today, the frontline of religious liberty is not at the front door of the church — not yet anyway — but at the front door of the Christian business owner, the Christian college and university, and Christian social and benevolence agencies of all kinds,” David Krueger told the Senate Committee hearing, explaining the threat to religious liberty that has come from “a new moral and legal order” that is trying to normalize same-sex marriage in the United States. “Missouri needs a Religious Liberty Amendment that protects the religious liberty rights of its citizens. This amendment is not—let me repeat—this amendment is not a license to discriminate against protected classes of people. It is a shield, and not a sword.”
The bill would be a “shield” for churches like Open Heart, Columbia. According to church member Bonnie Lee, this church—like many others—wants to serve its community with its facilities, but church leaders and members fear that, by opening themselves up to the community in this way, they are also opening themselves up to legal attack because of their biblical beliefs about marriage.
“I appreciate,” Lee said, “that Missouri would stand up and let us feel comfortable and let us exercise that faith. … I appreciate so much a bill from our state that protects our freedom of religion.”
Michael Whitehead reminded the committee that religion is not confined to the worship center or to private Bible study, but that religious beliefs affect every aspect of people’s lives.
“People should be able to practice what they preach and not be penalized by the government,” he said, adding that the people of Missouri should be able to speak out on these issues in the ballot box.
Don Hinkle told the committee that Baptists have, historically, been at the forefront of defending religious liberty. For example, after years of facing jail-time for preaching without governmental permission, colonial Baptists were among the first to support the United States Bill of Rights.
“This has always been probably the most important issue to us,” Hinkle said. “It is who we are.”
Indeed, Missouri Baptists also have a long history of defending religious freedom. During the past 50 years, Missouri Baptists have continued firmly to stand for religious freedom, passing 12 resolutions in its defense since 1976. This includes a 1990 resolution celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, which affirmed Missouri Baptists’ “belief that religion flourishes best without government’s interference” and promised to defend this “fundamental principle” in years to come.
Again, in 2014, the convention passed a resolution defending religious liberty and calling Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster to defend a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that was passed in 2004 by a 71-29 percent margin—a portion of the Missouri Constitution that was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer.
In response to this court ruling, MBC messengers once again affirmed the convention’s strong support of religious liberty during the MBC annual meeting last fall.