A resolution on immigration at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Phoenix sparked a lively debate and multiple votes over a proposal that critics called "amnesty."
Although the original language remained in the resolution – albeit with anti-amnesty language inserted – the tone of the debate became heated at times and the critical vote succeeded by only 43 votes.
Meeting in a state that has made national headlines for its harsh anti-immigration legislation, the SBC resolution attempted to balance calls to evangelize and minister to immigrants with a desire to back conservative anti-immigration political policies.
Once the immigration resolution came up for consideration, a messenger from Arizona immediately made a motion to strike the clause that declared that that the messengers "ask our governing authorities to implement, with the borders secured, a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country."
"It is not amnesty," stated Resolutions Committee Chairman Paul Jimenez. "There is no reference to sanctuaries here."
However, several messengers continued to come to the microphones to denounce the language as "amnesty." One messenger also complained that the language "undocumented immigrants" was used instead of "illegal aliens."
Joining the opposition to the resolution's passage was Wiley Drake, who has been a leader in the "birther" movement that many accuse of being racist for refusing to accept that President Barack Obama was born in the United States.
Drake, a former SBC second vice president, ran unsuccessfully for SBC president at this year's annual meeting – drawing only 4 percent of the vote in a two-person race.
Another resolution approved by the messengers denounced, among other things, Christians who have been "calling for prayer for the deaths of public officials."
Drake, who previously prayed for the death of Obama and other public officials, appeared to be an unnamed target of the resolution.
"In all due respect to the committee, I don't care what you all think," Drake thundered. "I believe the Baptists believe what is right. This will be known as 'Southern Baptist amnesty.' That's exactly what this is."
"They don't need restitution," he added. "They need to go to work."
"This is amnesty anyway you phrase it," Drake continued. "That amnesty clause needs to come out."
Jimenez argued that the Resolutions Committee decided to "state [their] principles as broadly as possible" on political issues regarding immigration. He called the language in question "simply … a realistic and biblical approach to immigration" but did not spell out what that policy would entail.
Jimenez also said that the Resolutions Committee wanted to help move churches to a point that when they "see immigrants here among us, that our first question is not 'what is their legal status?' But the question first and foremost is 'what is their gospel status?'"
"It is not a matter of breaking the law," he added. "It's a matter of our gospel response to those people who are here."
After the contentious debate, the voting by raised hands was deemed too close to call. Messengers then voted with paper ballots, where the amendment to strike the language narrowly failed 51-48 percent.
Only 1,500 of the nearly 5,000 registered messengers cast ballots.
In an effort to build support for the intact original resolution, the Resolutions Committee proposed inserting language noting that "this resolution is not to be construed as support for amnesty for any undocumented immigrant."
The addition easily passed, as did the newly amended resolution.
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Supporting key conservative priorities, the resolution also declared that messengers "ask our governing authorities to prioritize efforts to secure the borders and to hold businesses accountable for hiring practices as they relate to immigration status."
In addition to promoting stricter immigration policies, the resolution also urged Christians to minister to all people "regardless of country of origin or immigration status" and to reject "bigotry or harassment against any persons, regardless of their country of origin or legal status."
During the floor debate, Resolutions Committee member Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted his belief that the passage should not be removed.
"This is an important discussion for who we're going to be [as] a gospel people," he wrote.
Our response to the immigrant communities in this country cannot be "You kids get off my lawn" in Spanish," he added.
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, similarly tweeted his concern about removing the passage in question.
"Southern Baptists are at a crucial decision point," he wrote. "The immigration crisis demands a Gospel response before any political response."
Although the original language supported by Moore and Mohler remained in the resolution – albeit with anti-amnesty language inserted – the tone of the debate became heated at times and the critical vote succeeded by only 43 votes.
The debate marred the racially inclusive image the SBC attempted to present through the annual meeting.
Fred Luter, a pastor in New Orleans, became the first African-American elected as first vice president – and many are pushing him to become the first African-American SBC president at next year's annual meeting in New Orleans.
During the annual meeting, attention was also given to how Southern Baptists could reach out to ethnic minorities as a key to reversing years of decline for the denomination.
"I believe we are living in a day and time where there will be increased ethnic involvement and increased sensitivity to ethnic diversity within our convention," SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page declared at the meeting.
Similarly, Jimenez argued during the debate over the proposed immigration resolution that the opposition to creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants could hurt the SBC's efforts to evangelize in places like Arizona, New Mexico, California, Texas and Florida.
Last week, Alabama Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, who is a member of a Southern Baptist church, signed the nation's harshest anti-immigration law. Last month, Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, a member of a Baptist church, also signed an anti-immigration law modeled after Arizona's controversial 2010 law.
This summer, the latest EthicsDaily.com documentary, which will focus on immigration, will be released.
EthicsDaily.com Executive Editor Robert Parham recently penned a column arguing that the use of the word "illegals" instead of "undocumented immigrants" is morally problematic.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.