MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has only been in office three days, but he's already facing criticism for remarks he made the day of his inauguration.
Bentley, a Republican, told a crowd at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church on Monday that if they haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, they are not his brother or his sister.
“The governor does not have to be a seasoned politician to understand the impact of remarks like that,” said Bill Nigut, the Southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “These are remarks of a man who truly believes what he said, apparently. This seems to be quite clear that Christians are part of an exclusive relationship he has with his brothers and sisters and the rest of us are not.”
Bentley was sworn in shortly before he spoke at the church where the late civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was once a pastor. According to The Birmingham News, during his speech he said it was important for Alabamians to ''love and care for each other." He also told the crowd he is color blind. But just minutes later, he went on to say if they don’t have the same ‘daddy’ then they are not brothers and sisters.
"There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit," Bentley said during his speech. ''But if you have been adopted in God's family like I have, and like you have if you're a Christian and if you're saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister."
“In the city and the state, there are segments of the population who were offended and others said it was good what he said,” said Joey Kennedy, an opinion writer for The Birmingham News who has closely watched the reaction to Bentley's remarks. “He is not a civilian anymore; he is not a private person anymore. He is the governor of Alabama every day, 24-hours a day.”
Kennedy went on to say that the fact Bentley chose to deliver his remarks in a church doesn’t make it appropriate. “The forum doesn’t matter. Look at the forum, it was a commemoration of Martin Luther King Day to honor the legacy of Dr. King, which was anything but exclusionary,” he said.
Gov. Bentley’s director of communications, Rebekah Mason, sent Fox News a statement on behalf of the governor.
“The governor had intended no offense by his remarks. He is the governor of all the people, Christians, non-Christians alike.”
At this time, he is not scheduled for an on-camera appearance to address Monday’s speech.
For Nigut and the ADL, the statement isn’t enough. He is looking for something more.
“An apology is only meaningful if it is consistent with a sincere understanding of what a person has done wrong. If Gov. Bentley were to say: ‘I realize I was wrong that we are all brothers and sister, and not single out only the ones who believe in Jesus Christ,’” Nigut said.
So is the governor simply exercising the First Amendment or is the statement up for interpretation?
Gene Policinski, the executive director of The First Amendment Center, says Bentley needs to keep in mind, like all public officials, that his office represents all faiths.
“When a politician might reveal his beliefs, it is creating an impression,” Policinski said. “Religion is a part of many peoples’ lives, but there is an implication when a particular faith receives favorable or disfavorable treatment. It is a very difficult line to draw, but it is one any politician has to be aware of.”
Kennedy agrees with the statement that Bentley has First Amendment rights, but he is speaking as the governor, the one person who has the bully pulpit of the state.
“I challenge it was truly a religious forum, it was an audience of a lot of different people,” he said.
Elizabeth Prann currently serves as a Washington-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). She joined the network in 2006 as a production assistant.