A Southern Baptist Convention leader is quoted as calling it a stretch to claim that Democrats are trying to ban the Bible, while saying that some people would like for quoting the Bible against homosexuality to be considered hate speech.

The New York Times on Friday quoted Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a story about the Republican Party sending mass mailings to residents of Arkansas and West Virginia warning that “liberals” seek to ban the Bible.

The mailings, according to press reports, include images of the Bible labeled “banned,” and a picture of a man kneeling and placing an engagement ring on the finger of another man, which is labeled “allowed.”

The Interfaith Alliance called on President Bush and the head of the Republican National Committee to denounce such “divisive tactics.” “Manipulation of religion for partisan purposes has no place in a democracy that is founded on the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of religion,” said Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance.

“Republicans always say they want to have a values debate, but lying and spreading hate were not the values I learned growing up in a small town in North Carolina where the Bible was the most important book in my home,” Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards said in a statement.

Other critics dismissed as ridiculous any suggestion that reading from the Bible could be banned under the First Amendment. One editorial accused Republicans of insulting the intelligence of voters in the two states.

“Possibly the next mailing from the Republican National Committee will warn that if ‘liberals’ get elected, they will seize first-born sons and bus them to racially integrated government schools where they will be forced to marry other little boys, worship the devil, drink fluoridated water, burn the flag–and learn French,” said North Carolina’s Wilmington Star.

But Southern Baptist leader Land, according to The Times, was more cautious in his assessment. “We have the First Amendment in this country, which should protect churches, but there is no question that this is where some people want to go, that reading from the Bible could be hate speech.”

Land added that he wouldn’t say that Democrats desire to ban the whole Bible. “I would think that is probably stretching it a bit far,” he said.

The Times article said the mailing sought to appeal to conservative evangelical pastors and political leaders who fear that granting legal rights for same-sex couples could lead to hate-crime legislation outlawing sermons which quote Bible passages that condemn homosexuals.

An oft-cited example is the case of Ake Green, a Pentecostal minister in Sweden sentenced this summer to a month in prison for violating a 2002 constitutional amendment that added sexual orientation to a list of groups protected against “unfavorable speech” in the country.

In a 2003 sermon, Green allegedly described homosexuality as “abnormal, a horrible cancerous tumor in the body of society.” He further described homosexuals as “perverts, whose sexual drive the devil has used as his strongest weapon against God.”

The prosecutor in the Swedish case was quoted as saying, “One may have whatever religion one wishes, but [the sermon] is an attack on all fronts against homosexuals. Collecting Bible [verses] on this topic as he does makes this hate speech.”

A controversial anti-gay Web site describes Green as “the first Christian martyr in Europe since the Inquisition.”

Independent Baptist preacher Fred Phelps, who runs the site and is well-known for picketing religious gatherings with his “God Hates Fags” placards, last week wrote an open letter criticizing Jerry Falwell for reports that Falwell alters his message in Canada because condemning homosexuality can be classified by law as hate speech there but not in the United States.

Canada in April passed a bill adding sexual orientation to its hate propaganda laws. Unlike Sweden, however, the Canada law includes a defense for arguments “based on belief in a religious text.”

Both Falwell and Land support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage.

Phelps accused Falwell of “cowardly hypocrisy” for failure to denounce homosexuality in Canadian programs and called on him to use his influence to call for a boycott of Canada and Sweden because of their hate-crimes laws.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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