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The federal Marriage Protection Amendment is “misguided, prejudicial and unwarranted” legislation that “has the smell and feel of Salem,” a Baptist ethicist said in a Washington press conference on Monday.

Paul Simmons, an ordained Baptist minister who teaches at the University of Louisville, joined more than 30 ministers on Capitol Hill to denounce a constitutional amendment stating that marriage “shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.” A Senate vote on S.J. Res. 1 is expected in early June.

While members of the anti-amendment coalition Clergy for Fairness hold diverse opinions on same-sex marriage, Simmons said, “We are united in our opposition to the federal marriage amendment” for several reasons, including the separation of church and state.

Simmons is the current president of Americans for the United of Separation of Church and State’s board of trustees.

A number of religious rights group are pushing for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, for example, is asking Southern Baptist churches to observe Marriage Protection Sunday June 4, the eve of the scheduled Senate debate.

“Supporters of traditional marriage need to bombard their senators’ offices with e-mails and phone calls, and preachers across America need to let the pulpit ring forth in clear and no uncertain terms on Marriage Protection Sunday, June 4, and help create a groundswell of support for this amendment,” ERLC President Richard Land told Baptist Press. “I can assure you the opponents of traditional marriage are doing their best to let their voices be heard in the corridors of the Senate. It is up to us to let our voices be heard loudly as well.”

But Simmons, a one-time professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told media representatives the religious right is not representative of the majority of America’s religious voices, Simmons said, “The thunder of the religious right should be resisted.”

He said he reason the religious right is pushing the marriage amendment is to “deprive a certain group of people in the United States, who are citizens, of rights guaranteed for the rest of us under the Constitution.”

Alluding to witch trials in 1692 in Massachusetts, Simmons said the amendment drive “has the smell and feel of Salem and the Puritan experiment in America.”

“Puritanism seems never to die,” he continued. “It lives always to try to deprive others of the spirit of freedom.”

Simmons said Clergy for Fairness would continue to add signatures to 1,600 names already on a joint letter from national religious groups opposing the marriage amendment.

Signed by leaders of 22 bodies, including the Alliance of Baptists, the letter says the proposed amendment “reflects a fundamental disregard for individual civil rights and ignores differences among our nation’s many religious traditions.”

“Regardless of judicial and legislative decisions defining the legal rights of gay couples, religious marriage will justly remain the prerogative of individual faith traditions in accordance with their doctrinal beliefs,” the letter says.

“It is not the task of our government and elected representatives to enshrine in our laws the religious point of view of any one faith. Rather, our government should dedicate itself to protecting the rights of all citizens and all faiths.”

The Constitution has not had a provision on marriage for more than 200 years, leaving the matter up to the states, the letter continues. The First Amendment, meanwhile, was added because the founders saw the danger of allowing government to have control over religious decisions, such as a church’s decision to bless a same-sex union.

“We are particularly concerned that this proposal to amend the Constitution would, for the first time, restrict the civil rights of millions of Americans,” the letter says. “That concern alone merits rejection of the Federal Marriage Amendment.”

“We strongly believe that Congress must continue to protect the nation’s fundamental religious freedoms and continue to protect our nation’s bedrock principle of respecting religious pluralism,” it concludes. “Congress should soundly reject any attempt to enshrine into the Constitution a particular religious viewpoint on a matter of such fundamental religious importance.”

The full amendment, which must pass both houses of Congress by a two-thirds majority and be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures to take effect, says: “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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