NEW ORLEANS – A day after electing their first African-American president in a historic move that strives to erase its legacy of racism, Southern Baptists passed a resolution opposing the idea that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue.
Thousands of delegates at the denomination's annual meeting in New Orleans on Wednesday were nearly unanimous in their support for the resolution that affirms their belief that marriage is "the exclusive union of one man and one woman" and that "all sexual behavior outside of marriage is sinful."
The nation's largest Protestant denomination is attempting to broaden its appeal beyond its traditional white Southern base. At the same time, leaders said they feel it is important to take a public stand on their opposition to same-sex marriage.
The resolution acknowledges that gays and lesbians sometimes experience "unique struggles" but declares that they lack the "distinguishing features of classes entitled to special protections."
"It is regrettable that homosexual rights activists and those who are promoting the recognition of 'same-sex marriage' have misappropriated the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement," the resolution states.
Another resolution passed on Wednesday is intended to protect religious liberty. It includes a call for the U.S. Justice Department to cease efforts to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and for the Obama administration to ensure that military personnel and chaplains can freely express their religious convictions about homosexuality.
It also condemns the administration's mandate requiring religiously affiliated institutions, but not houses of worship, to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees.
Leaders of several other faiths and Christian denominations, especially Roman Catholics, have also organized and filed lawsuits against Obama administration policies that they see as threatening religious expression.
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, was one of the authors of the gay marriage resolution.
"It's important to sound the alarm again, because the culture is changing," he said in an interview after the vote.
McKissic, who is black, said it was "an unfair comparison" for gays to equate same-sex marriage with civil rights because there is not incontrovertible scientific evidence that homosexuality is an innate characteristic, like skin color.
"They're equating their sin with my skin," he said.
David W. Key Sr., director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said that as gays and lesbians become accepted in the larger American society, the Southern Baptist Convention is trying to separate itself from some of the more hateful rhetoric while still staying true to its beliefs.
The resolution includes a statement that the SBC stands against "any form or gay-bashing, whether disrespectful attitudes, hateful rhetoric, or hate-incited actions."
But even with those disclaimers, Key said statements like this could hurt evangelism because they are likely to be objectionable to many people who are "not necessarily affirming, but also not rejecting" of gay rights issues.
Key said the Southern Baptists have continued to be outspoken on issues regarding gays and lesbians where other denominations with similar beliefs have not made the same type of public statements. He noted the SBC's previous eight-year boycott of The Walt Disney Co. for its gay-friendly policies.
The civil rights resolution comes at the same time the 16-million strong Nashville-based denomination is taking stands in other areas that will help it reach out to new members.
The election of the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. on Tuesday as the first African American president of the SBC was hailed as historic by denomination leaders who see it as a sign that Southern Baptists have truly moved beyond a divisive racial past.
In a news conference after the vote, Luter said he doesn't think his election is some kind of token gesture.
"If we stop appointing African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics to leadership positions after this, we've failed," he said. "... I promise you I'm going to do all that I can to make sure this is not just a one-and-done deal."
Delegates to the annual meeting also voted to adopt an alternative name for churches that feel the "Southern Baptist" title could be a turn-off to potential believers.
Supporters of the optional name "Great Commission Baptists" argued it would help missionaries and church planters to reach more people for Christ.
And the Southern Baptists have been less provocative on gay issues than they once were. The denomination ended its Disney boycott in 2005 and this year, as outgoing President Bryant Wright passed the gavel to Luter, the new president asked about Wright's plans.
"I'm going to Disney World!" Wright said.