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By Aaron Gould Sheinin
An incendiary column on a religious website comparing Georgia lawmakers to Adolf Hitler has threatened to derail negotiations over “religious liberty” legislation just days before lawmakers go home for the year.
In a legislative update written last week for the Christian Index, Mike Griffin, the public affairs director for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, wrote that progress had stalled on the so-called religious liberty bills that religious conservatives have advocated for more than two years. This particular episode comes as the Senate has repeatedly passed bills that please religious conservatives only to see them stall in the House.
“We must not let the government do to us what Hitler did to the pastors and churches of his day,” Griffin wrote. “He got them to accept this protection from government action if they would agree to stay out of government. He basically said, you take care of the church and leave government to me. Pastors, this is happening before our eyes today.”
State lawmakers on Thursday took turns blasting Griffin, who was at the Capitol in his role as the Baptists’ lobbyist. While the rhetoric in the House was heated, the long-term impact of Griffin’s words could be that it sets back negotiations over the bills before the legislative session ends March 24.
The language referring to Hitler, a copy of which was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was later removed from the post, but not before it zipped through lawmakers’ cellphones and email accounts. By Thursday morning, a bipartisan parade of lawmakers were ready to denounce Griffin and his writings.
+ Ga. ‘religious liberty’ bill in peril after advocate speaks of Hitler photo
The Rev. Mike Griffin, the public affairs director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, recently wrote in support of “religious liberty” … read more
State Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, said Griffin is comparing lawmakers to the “most despicable person ever to walk this Earth.”
“I’m ashamed this man is walking around this Capitol with a badge claiming he represents me and my faith,” said Kelley, who demanded an apology.
Griffin told the AJC there’s nothing to apologize for.
“All we were doing was making a historical reference,” Griffin said. “Look at the article and its context. It’s simply a call to pastors for their help, a call for them not to be silent.”
It was not, he said, an “accusation against anybody or group of individuals.”
He later removed the language, he said, because “we don’t want to miscommunicate that to anyone.”
“Again, to show we’re not trying to divert attention away from the issue,” Griffin said. “We want the attention to stay on the issue. That was written as a call to action.”
Later Thursday, the Baptist Mission Board released a statement that said Griffin’s words were a call to pastors not to make the same mistake churches in Germany made when they refused to stand up for their faith against the government’s discrimination against Jews and some Christians.
“It is impossible to understand the content of the article, unless one understands that it was not directed at the General Assembly, but a call to action for pastors based on church history,” the statement said. “We sincerely regret any misunderstanding of the intent of this article or its historical context. We should all rightly be held accountable for what we say, but not for what we do not say.”
The damage, however, was already done.
State Rep. Paul Battles, R-Cartersville, attends First Baptist Church of Cartersville, where the editor of the Christian Index, Gerald Harris, once served as interim pastor.
“What has happened has put a scar on our (Baptist) convention,” Battles said from the floor of the House, adding that Griffin “may need to be pruned.”
State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, said he’s a different kind of Baptist, but he wanted to stand with his colleagues. Yet, he warned all sides to be careful.
“Let’s not fall into the abyss that’s forming in this country,” he said. “Common decency must become the rule of the day again. We must be decent. We must say decent things. We must respect institutions.”
Lawmakers and activists have been in a tug of war for more than a year over legislation that supporters say protects religious Georgians’ right to practice their faith and that opponents say would legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.
With just seven days left in the 2016 legislative session, tempers are starting to fray.
The House earlier this year passed House Bill 757, the so-called Pastor Protection Act, which would make clear no member of the clergy could be forced to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony. While many believed it unnecessary, HB 757 passed the House overwhelmingly.
In the Senate, however, it was amended to include the First Amendment Defense Act, a proposal that says no individual or faith-based organization could be forced to serve anyone with whom they disagree with on a religious basis.
That bill is currently before the House, but Speaker David Ralston and Gov. Nathan Deal have said they do not favor any bill that would legalize discrimination. On Thursday, Ralston said Griffin’s comments make compromise much more difficult.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to come to a resolution that will be reasonably acceptable to everyone who has an interest on the issue,” he said. “It makes it extremely tough when you have these kinds of horrible comments. It really taints the dialogue. It makes it tough.”SHARE THIS STORY