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By Craig Schneider, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Declaring “spiritual warfare” on gay marriage, thousands gathered in Ohio on Tuesday for the annual Southern Baptist Convention and vowed that, no matter what the Supreme Court rules this month, they will never yield on the issue.

The Baptists acknowledged that the court seems likely to legalize same-sex marriage when it rules in the next two weeks, but leaders urged the faithful to stand fast and, indeed, lead the nation in opposition.

“We are in spiritual warfare,” said convention president the Rev. Ronnie Floyd. “This is not a time for Southern Baptists to stand back.”

Floyd echoed a generally defiant tone among attendees, many of them pastors, who have faced increasing criticism for their belief that the Bible declares homosexuality a sin and limits marriage to a man and a woman. At a time when society is increasingly tolerant of same-sex unions, he said, Southern Baptists must stand by their views.

“This is not the time to retreat,” said Floyd, who leads Cross Church in Arkansas. “The alarm clock is going off around the world. Now is not the time to hit the snooze button.”

Floyd said the high court’s opinion, expected within two weeks, could mark the most significant religion-related court ruling since the 1973 abortion decision of Roe v. Wade. It could alter the nation’s structure of marriage and compromise religious liberty, he said. “It would add fuel, more fuel, to the already sweeping wildfire of sexual revolution and move it beyond all control,” he said.

Numerous Georgia pastors and church officials attended the opening of the convention Tuesday, as Georgia has played a long and powerful role in the organization founded in 1845. While still heavily concentrated in the South, the SBC has affiliations throughout the U.S. and is the world’s largest Baptist denomination.

Several attendees, whom the event terms as “messengers,” said the convention — with its joyful gospel songs, impassioned testimonials and shared fellowship — offered a communal sense of reassurance of their views. The official attendance was 5,000, but it did not count the many spouses and children on hand.

Many of their congregants, sensing the shifting cultural climate on gay marriage, feel defensive and afraid to publicly state their views, wary of being cast as bigots or hate-mongers.

“We understand how fully unpopular our view is, and where the culture is on this issue,” said the Rev. Bryant Wright of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in East Cobb, Ga., and a former convention president. “But we must stay true to God’s word.”

Wright acknowledged the difficulty of communicating that church members are not hateful or discriminatory against gays and lesbians, though Baptists do believe they are sinners. He noted that he preaches to teens who have sex outside of marriage, people who divorce, and those who commit adultery. He loves them and hopes they find their way, he said.

Winston Taylor, a planner with Gospel Fellowship Church in northwest Atlanta, said he is fine with gay and lesbian spouses receiving legal benefits.

“Where I disagree is when they want to bring it into the church,” he said. “The church is a God thing, and God has said homosexuality and lesbianism is a sin.”

The issue of same-sex marriage is expected to dominate the convention. Tuesday ended with a resolution reaffirming the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Wednesday’s will begin with a press conference by Floyd and former presidents on the issue and end with a panel discussion on the question before the Supreme Court.

(c)2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Gary Dincer via Flickr

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