The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina adopted one of the strongest anti-gay policies of an American church body, authorizing leaders to investigate credible reports that individual churches act to endorse or affirm homosexuals.
The 1.2 million-member, 4,000-church BSCNC, the nation's second-largest state Baptist group, voted Tuesday to amend its articles of incorporation to exclude churches that "knowingly act to affirm, approve, endorse, promote, support or bless homosexual behavior."
While the Southern Baptist Convention has had similar language in its constitution for more than a decade, North Carolina Baptists went a step further, adding a mechanism allowing the convention to investigate inquiries about whether a specific church violates the policy.
Opponents said it would abridge local-church autonomy and encourage churches to tattle on one another.
Immediately under suspicion are 19 churches listed on a Web site as affiliates of the Alliance of Baptists, a group on record in support of gay marriage and advocating full inclusion of gays and lesbians into church life.
Churches that belong to the Alliance have been barred from leadership service in North Carolina for two years. The state convention stopped taking contributions from gay friendly churches in 1992, after two congregations made headlines for blessing a same-sex union and licensing an openly gay minister.
Last year fundamentalist pastor Bill Sanderson brought a motion asking the convention to disqualify churches that affiliate with or send money to any group that affirms homosexuality and those that knowingly accept unrepentant homosexuals as members. In 2003 the convention booted a church for accepting two gay men as members and later baptizing them.
New language adopted at this year's annual meeting isn't as specific, but convention leaders reportedly chose to give teeth to Sanderson's intent by mentioning homosexuality in the convention's governing documents.
"It's not something that we wanted to do, but homosexuality is the only sin that has its own advocacy group," convention spokesman Norman Jameson said in the Associated Press. "Those advocacy groups are pushing us into this stance. Other denominations that waffle and waver on the issue year after year are getting torn apart."
State convention president Stan Welch told reporters the convention will not assign people to police the issue, but if word comes to the BSC about possible violations, officials will follow up.
According to the Biblical Recorder, BSC Executive Director Milton Hollifield said a church identified as having an openly homosexual member would have to decide between keeping that person and a member and remaining in fellowship with the state convention. "But that's not something we are going to seek out," he said.
The new language reads: "Among churches not in friendly cooperation with the Convention are churches which knowingly act to affirm, approve, endorse, promote, support or bless homosexual behavior. The Board of Directors shall apply this provision. A church has the right to appeal any adverse action taken by the Board of Directors."
The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant group, changed its constitution in 1993 to deny membership to "churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior."
"But the Southern Baptist Convention didn't go around trying to meddle with and investigate churches," Jeanette Holt, associate director for The Alliance of Baptists, told the Associated Press. "This new policy sounds to me like an interfering witch hunt."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.