by Arthur Boatin
Discrimination, public ridicule and the loss of freedoms were among themes at the First Baptist Church of Cherryfield on June 29. But those in danger of suffering such treatment, according to the sermon, are neither blacks, women, homosexuals nor ethnic minorities but fundamentalist Christians.
Michael S. Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine (CCLM) and organizer of a propose referendum to overturn a recently passed gay rights law, was a guest and the featured speaker during the church's regular Sunday service. Heath asserted that the United States at its inception was a deeply religious country that freely acknowledged its religiousness. Among the evidence he cited was the founding of Cherryfield's First Baptist Church, or its antecedent, in 1796, a history that "intrigued" him.
"I mention you [and your church] all over Maine," he said, because "the elected officials [of the town 201 years ago] helped pay for and build this church" without seeing a conflict between their public, civic roles and their private beliefs.
In contrast, Heath said, today he sees a country and a people that don't care about the Bible and, in Augusta, elected and appointed officials who "have stopped thinking how faith matters." Public declaration of religious faith as a rationale or biblical support for a policy position are ridiculed, he said.
Scorned for the Lord's Work
Heath indicated his willingness to continue to do "this work [that] the Lord has called [my wife and me] to do,...even though it involves sacrifices. "The sacrifices, Heath said, include sometimes being publicly scorned. As a result of his support for the 1995 referendum that failed to forbid, in advance, enactment of legal recourses against discriminatory treatment based on actual or perceived homosexuality, and his militant opposition to this year's L.D. 1116, a gay rights law, Heath has become recognizable to the public. He described an incident in which workers in a Portland restaurant were rude to him once they realized who he was.
Heath blamed the news media, not the individuals who were rude, because the press "characterizes people who take a principled position against homosexuality as bigots and haters." He insisted that hate is not a motivating factor in his beliefs. "The millions of Americans ...who are concerned about this issue are not bigots, not haters." For them, he is quoted as saying in the June issue of "The Record", a four page CCLM publication that is distributed without charge at the Cherryfield church, "the issue is a matter of morality. They believe homosexuality is morally wrong."
Gay Rights Law Threatens Christians' beliefs
How Christians' rights and freedoms are threatened by the new gay-rights law is a major topic of the cover story, by Daniel A. Lang, in the same issue of "The Record." Nowhere does the law "exempt the individual whose religious beliefs influence his conduct.... For example,...Christians might be forced to rent to homosexuals, despite their moral objections to homosexual practices.
"Here we are talking about private property rights," Heath is quoted as saying, which "should take precedence over some individuals' desire to indulge their `sexual preference."'
Still another depiction of literal scripturalists as a beleaguered, persecuted group was provided by the speaker's wife, Pauline "Polly'' Heath. Prior to the sermon she sang three Negro spirituals for the congregation. She prefaced the music with a "historical reference" that has relevance, she thought, for contemporary Christians. These songs from the period of slavery grew out of the experience of "being in a minority and oppressed," she said. Still the songs express "hope, in situations that were unfriendly to [the songwriters].
In his talk Heath celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCLM, which occurred in March this year, although he did not refer to a primary reason for its founding, mentioned in a piece by Dr. John Mudge in the June "The Record": "Widespread concern over...the growing indifference to the consequences of intemperance."
Power and Money Drive Decision-making
Heath described the objectives of the organization, then and now, as to "promote good government and citizenship and provide a Christian perspective." He said the received opinion today, shared by Governor Angus King, is that religion and government are best kept separate, that "too much religion in government is divisive.
"Two things drive decision-making in Augusta today," Heath said. "Power and money. Those who emphasize morality and values are suspect, are thought to take their religion too seriously.
"Working as I do every day with our elected officials," Heath said, "I think we need more religion," not less.
"The future of our country and our state," he said, "will be determined to the extent we can persuade people to consider faith, religion and [Christian] truth. Is there anything that matters more? "We all have a cross to bear ", Heath told his audience. "[Being publicly abused and scorned as a bigot] is mine.... [But you and I] can be fearless as long as we're standing on principles we find in [the Lord's] book....What does God want you to do, in your sphere of influence? What is your cross?"
The CCLM and the Christian Coalition of Maine are active opponents of the new gay rights law passed in the recent session of the legislature. July 4 they began gathering the required minimum 52,000 certified voter signatures within a 90-day period, with the purpose of suspending implementation of the controversial law pending a statewide referendum that, if passed, would repeal the law.
In his talk Heath did not go into specifics of the gay rights law against which he is leading a "people's veto." Nor did he mention CCLM's support for sexual abstinence education, an issue dealt with in the league's two-page "Weekly Issues Summary" dated June 30, also handed out at the church that Sunday.
His remarks seemed to presume a familiarity on the part of the audience with his and the league's position on certain issues, and the rationale for those positions. He did not so much argue any of his beliefs but emphasize, passionately, his willingness to stand up for them and try to influence others to them.
In a week in which the Supreme Court rendered major decisions on issues of concern to the CCLM, Heath made no reference to recent news. 'The court's striking down of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and a law intended to regulate smut on the Internet went unmentioned by him. Also ignored were the court's refusal to recognize a constitutionally-guaranteed right to assisted suicide and its go-ahead for public school teachers to tutor parochial school students in their own schools.
Heath, 35, who was on vacation Down East, has been a member of the CCLM since 1989 and its head since 1994. He, his wife, and three children were described in the introduction by deacon Ben York as camping on Mount Desert Island, after which they would go on to Cobscook Bay. York said Heath "has been with us several times [at First Baptist Church]. He works hard in Augusta, along with [state Representative Jim Layton of Cherryfield] and other believers, to get our views across and try to straighten things out in this world."
Prior to greeting parishioners at the door at the end of the service, Heath invited people to sign up to receive the league's newsletter and to order copies of an audio tape of hymns sung by Polly Heath that will be released in the near future.
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