First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City has withdrawn permission for an interfaith group to meet on the church site, citing differing views over the separation of church and state.
Two days before an interfaith prayer gathering at the state Capitol marking the National Day of Prayer, the church’s pastor on Tuesday said the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State could not use a Sunday school room for a public meeting featuring Barry Lynn, executive director of the national AU organization.
First Baptist Pastor Tom Ogburn said in a press release that the church staff originally gave permission for the group to meet as a courtesy to a church member. The unnamed member asked that a group holding an 11 a.m., Thursday, Interfaith Day of Prayer and Reflection on the Capitol steps be allowed to use a room at the church for a question-and-answer session that evening.
Ogburn said the ministerial staff understood the meeting would be small in size and would not imply endorsement by the church. After news reports and other publicity made it appear the church was host to Lynn and in support of his organization, he said, the church rescinded permission and issued a press release saying the group would have to find another meeting place.
“While our congregation values the historic Baptist principle of an appropriate separation of church and state, neither the AU nor Barry Lynn act as an appropriate voice for our beliefs,” Ogburn said. “Our focus is on missions and ministries that positively impact the lives of those in our community and our world in the name of Christ.”
Bruce Prescott, a Baptist minister and executive director of the Oklahoma AU chapter, said he first learned of the decision indirectly and too late to change newspaper advertising. The forum, titled “What Place Does Religion Have in the Public Square,” will be moved to First Unitarian Church.
Prescott, who also leads Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, told a local paper he was “absolutely shocked” by Ogburn’s statement and the press release.
“Anyone who has followed Baptists knows that they have been backsliding from their commitment to religious liberty for all Americans for 25 years,” Prescott said in a statement. “Apparently a number of people at First Baptist are uncomfortable with the Baptist legacy supporting church/state separation, and the current leadership of the church is too timid to address it.”
Prescott is lead organizer of “Let Freedom Ring: A Celebration of Freedom of Conscience.” The interfaith prayer meeting, in its second year, provides Oklahomans an alternative to the National Day of Prayer service conducted by evangelical Christians, which is scheduled at noon on the second floor rotunda inside the Capitol.
Prescott said the evangelical-run event National Day of Prayer event excludes non-Christian faiths and has grown increasingly political.
“We are not protesting them,” Prescott told The Oklahoman. “We are trying to find a way to get broader representation from the community. It’s a national day—it’s for everybody.” He said a Muslim scholar, a Jewish rabbi, a pagan and a humanist are scheduled to speak at the event.
Representing Christians on the program is Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister and frequent critic of the religious right.
“We do not think political tone that this group offers is a positive descriptor of the heart and passion of our congregation,” First Baptist pastor Ogburn said in his statement. “We have asked them to find an alternative meeting place and let them know that we will not allow them to hold further meetings in our facility.”
Prescott countered that the effort by church staff members “to divert attention from their timidity by blaming the church member who asked permission to use church facilities for our meeting is neither professional nor Christian.”
Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, chairs the National Day of Prayer, an annual observance held at various sites across the country. This year’s event, the 54th, is themed, “God Shed His Grace On Thee” and is based on Hebrews 4:16.
According to the official Web site, the National Day of Prayer was created by an act of Congress and is intended for people of all faiths. “However,” it continues, “our expression of that involvement is specifically limited to the Judeo-Christian heritage and those who share that conviction as expressed in the Lausanne Covenant,” an evangelical statement of beliefs adopted at a conference on worldwide evangelization in 1974.
“We believe that God would have us approach his throne of grace in prayer and repentance and return to biblical principles, the Ten Commandments and the Judeo Christian Ethic that became the foundation for one of the greatest societies in history,” Lloyd Smith, state chairman for the Oklahoma National Day of Prayer, said in The Oklahoman.
First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, founded in 1889, severed ties with the Southern Baptist Convention in 2001 by a vote of 300-69. A Denominational Relations Study Group recommending the action cited several reasons for the break, including changes in 2000 to the Baptist Faith & Message, with a new statement against women’s ordination. The church has ordained women as deacons since 1983.
The church’s most famous pastor, Herschel Hobbs, was president of the SBC in 1962-63 and chaired the committee that drafted the previous version of the Baptist Faith & Message in 1963. In it, an article on religious liberty described “a free church in a free state” as “the Christian ideal.”
Hobbs was pastor at Oklahoma City First Baptist from 1949 until his retirement in 1971. A leading Southern Baptist statesman of his era, he was featured preacher on the “Baptist Hour” radio program, reaching an estimated 50 million listeners a week, from 1958 to 1976.
A pastor/theologian with mass appeal, Hobbs wrote 103 books, including a quarterly manual commonly used by adult Sunday school teachers as background material for weekly Bible study lessons. He died in 1995 at age 88.
Like most of his contemporaries in the SBC, Hobbs stood firmly for religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
“Baptists oftentimes forget that our basic Baptist belief is not the infallibility of the Scriptures as some call it,” he wrote. “It is not even the deity of Jesus Christ, though I believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures and believe in the deity of Jesus Christ without question.
“The basic belief of Baptists is the competency of the soul in religion. When we forget that, then we get into all kinds of trouble. When I mention that nowadays, young preachers look at me like a calf looking at a new gate.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.