Gerald Herbert / AP file
Participants at the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans listen on Tuesday. A resolution adopted Wednesday differentiates gay rights from civil rights.
NEW ORLEANS -- A day after electing their first African-American president, Southern Baptists on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing the idea that gay rights are the same as civil rights.
The resolution adopted at the denomination's annual meeting in New Orleans affirms Southern Baptists' beliefs that marriage is "the exclusive union of one man and one woman" and that "all sexual behavior outside of marriage is sinful."
It acknowledges that gays and lesbians sometimes experience "unique struggles" but declares that they lack the "distinguishing features of classes entitled to special protections."
"We deny that the effort to legalize 'same-sex marriage' qualifies as a civil rights issue since homosexuality does not qualify as a class meriting special protections, like race and gender," the resolution says.
NBC Mark Potter reports.
David W. Key Sr., director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, told The Associated Press 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 on same-sex marriage and civil rights 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, statements such as this one could hurt evangelism efforts 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.
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 or taken the same types of actions, such as a 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 and distance itself from its image as a denomination of Southern white conservatives.
The election of the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. on Tuesday as the first African American president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination 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 his appointment is more than a symbolic gesture.
"If we stop appointing African Americans or Asians or Hispanics to leadership roles in this convention after my term is over, we failed. We absolutely failed," Luter said. Instead, he said, "This was a genuine, authentic move by this convention that says our doors are open, and the only way they can see that is not just putting up an African American president, but seeing other ethnic groups in other areas of this convention. Time will tell and I'll be a cheerleader promoting that."
Delegates to the annual meeting also voted to let churches use an alternative name less connected to the South and the group's past ties to slavery.
The proposal to allow affiliated churches to refer to themselves as "Great Commission Baptists" won approval from 53 percent of the 4,800 ballots cast.
"If it helps us with our mission, I think it will be great," said Brad Howard, pastor of Barton Baptist Church in Lucedale, Miss., Reuters reported. "I'm hoping it will benefit some of our congregations."
Attempts to change the name date back to 1903, and outgoing Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright appointed a task force in September to study the question again. The convention's executive committee opted against a wholesale name change earlier this year, but favored giving churches the option of using the alternative moniker.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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