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ELCA members to vote on opposition to 'religious freedom' laws

By Annysa Johnson of the Journal Sentinel

May 28, 2014 0

A Brookfield Lutheran church is calling on its Milwaukee-based synod to take a stand against so-called "religious freedom" laws proposed around the country, including in Wisconsin, that critics fear would allow discrimination against certain groups under the guise of religion.

The resolution, proposed by the council at Cross of Life Lutheran Church, is one of four that will be taken up at this weekend's annual assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Greater Milwaukee Synod, which kicks off Thursday in Waukesha.

It's aimed at laws, such as the one enacted in Mississippi in April, that critics say open the door to discrimination against gay and lesbian people on religious grounds. They've emerged in the wake of lawsuits against businesses that refused to serve same sex couples, saying that to do so would violate their religious principles.

Similar proposals have failed or languished elsewhere, including in Wisconsin, where lawmakers proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would have ensured a "right of conscience" to engage in or refrain from activity based on one's sincerely held religious belief. That resolution gained no traction in the 2013 legislative session.

"Sometimes ELCA Christians need to make clear exactly where we stand on certain issues, particularly issues with religious overtones," the Cross of Life council asserts in its resolution. "We want the world to know that the ELCA and its congregations are inclusive organizations who do not discriminate or support the right to discriminate."

Some conservative Christians have supported the bills as necessary to protect religious liberty. The Rev. John Horner-Ibler of Cross of Life called them antithetical to Christianity.

"We think of our doors as being open because Jesus' doors were open," he said. "He would not have refused service to someone based on the perception that they were in violation of a religious norm."

About 400 people are expected to attend the annual assembly Thursday through Saturday at the Country Springs Hotel and Conference Center in Waukesha. In addition to the resolutions, delegates will vote on the synod's $2.2 million budget.

Food security

The assembly's 2014 theme is food security, a major focus of local and international ministry in the Greater Milwaukee Synod.

Barbie Izqueirdo, an anti-hunger advocate whose story was featured in the documentary "A Place at the Table," will be the keynote speaker at Friday's luncheon, and Venice Williams, who transformed Milwaukee's Alice's Garden into a national model for urban gardening and building community, will deliver the sermon at the closing service on Saturday.

"This issue affects every corner of our synod. Virtually every congregation is involved in food packing, or a food pantry, and it is a focus of two of the three grants that will be lifted up during the assembly," synod Bishop Jeffrey Barrow said.

Those grants, funded through the sale of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church property in Waukesha, included $150,000 to expand meal programs at All People's Lutheran Church in Milwaukee and the nonprofit Just One More Ministry.

In keeping with another key ethic in the synod — environmental stewardship — delegates to the 2014 assembly for the first time have the option of going paperless. More than a third of participants signed up for an app that will allow them to review documents, take notes, post photos on social media and more on their computers, smartphones and tablets.

Other resolutions scheduled to be taken up this weekend would call for the synod to:

Create a Greater Milwaukee Synod Endowment Fund, whose proceeds would be used to finance church ministries, including projects that address hunger and poverty, racism, health and leadership development. Barrow said the resolution, initiated by the Lutheran office for planned giving, would allow the synod to more easily accept estate gifts.

Train and subsidize a corps of four interim pastors who can be dispatched to congregations in transition as needed.

Move its annual assembly to evenings and weekends, and reduce the costs to participants as a way to increase diversity and overall attendance. Barrow said the $200 registration fee and schedule discourage some congregations from sending as many delegates as permitted.

"I'm all for making the assembly more open and accessible for more people," he said.

About Annysa Johnson

Annysa Johnson covers K-12 education in southeastern Wisconsin.

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