Politics & Government

Mississippi religious people disagree over 'religious freedom'

Ashley
Ashley SUN HERALD

They are two men of God but they could not be further apart on the subject of Mississippi's "religious freedom bill."

On one side is a former minister from Ocean Springs who attends an Episcopal Church and considers himself a liberal. On the other, the conservative pastor of Cowan Road Baptist who sparked a debate with Muslims after he put up a sign that read "Allah is Satan."

"Obviously I'm distressed by the fact it was passed," said the Rev. Bruno Schroeder, a retired minister with the United Church of Christ who also served on the staff of Back Bay Mission in Biloxi for 23 years. "I'm encouraged that the business community seems to be putting pressure on the governor and legislators, although it didn't make any difference. He signed it anyway."

The Rev. Chris Ashley says much of the opposition is fueled by misinformation.

"If all the things being said by the opponents were true, I would be against it as well," he said. "It's based on the principle of protecting my rights after a major social change that we had."

That societal change was the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that said the right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by the Constitution.

"The Supreme Court did not say private schools, charities, businesses or individuals have to abandon their beliefs if they disagree," Ashley said. "There are a lot of government, state, local or whatever that are acting like because this has been passed by the Supreme Court you have to abandon your beliefs."

Schroeder worried supporters of the new law were misleading people by suggestions that all religious people favor it. He noted the United Church of Christ has ordained openly gay people for more than 50 years.

"All the religious people tend to get lumped in with conservative folks," he said. "There are a considerable number of clergy on the Coast who are in favor of LGBT issues and would stand up for their rights."

And he pointed to a statement in opposition to the bill from Bishop Brian R. Seage of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi.

"The gracious arms of our Lord are open to all who seek him," Seage wrote in the conclusion of the statement. "As the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, we continue to open our arms to our brothers and sisters who are adversely affected by this bill. Likewise, our arms are open to those who supported this legislation. New life may be found when we cast out our fear and ground our actions in the love of Christ."

Neither Schroeder nor Ashley had ever heard of someone being pressured to perform a same-sex marriage, although Schroeder said he was honored to have been asked to do one. Ashley said no same-sex couples have approached him.

"I think there are plenty of clergy on the Mississippi Gulf Coast who would be happy to perform a gay marriage," Schroeder said. "I think if they went to a conservative clergy and he declined, I would hope they wouldn't sue him."

Neither man cares for the tenor of the debate.

Ashley said he has received many hateful Facebook messages and posts and phone calls.

"People just start ripping me," he said. "'This is your law.' 'Your law hurts' and all this."

He said none of them can show him specifically where the law is biased or someone's rights are being taken away.

"If there is something there, let's talk about it," he said.

Schroeder also finds people unwilling to talk about their differences, a change in society that began long before this issue came up.

"It's not just this issue. In our national election campaign and prior to that, compromise has become such an evil word," he said. "We're choosing up sides. 'Don't tell me what you think. I don't want to know. I'm not interested. I don't want to hear about it and if you disagree with me I don't like you.' Or worse, 'I hate you.'"

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