NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A leader of the Southern Baptist Convention has withdrawn from a coalition that supports the rights of Muslims to build mosques in their communities.
Richard Land, the head of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he heard from many Southern Baptists who felt the work of the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques crossed the line from defending religious freedom to promoting Islam.
"I don't agree with that perception but it's widespread and I have to respect it," he told The Associated Press.
The Coalition was formed last year as an initiative of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish group that fights discrimination. Its first action was to file a friend of the court brief opposing a lawsuit that sought to stop a planned mosque in Murfreesboro, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville.
"My constituents, many felt, 'Yes. We certainly believe in religious freedom. People ought to have a place of worship. But it's a bridge too far not only to advocate for that, but to file suit,'" he said.
Saud Anwar is the founder and co-chair of the American Muslim Peace Initiative and a member of the coalition. He said he was saddened and disappointed by Land's action, which he believes undermines Land's professions of support for religious liberty for all.
"The Southern Baptist community is one of the finest examples of faith in action that I know of," Anwar said. "You are setting an example by your action."
Land said he was surprised by the opposition.
"I do think it's important to note that people were not calling me and saying Muslims don't have a right to have mosques," he said.
Land opposes building a Muslim community center with a mosque near New York City's Ground Zero, but he qualified that opposition: "That's not a religious liberties issue. That is a good manners issue."
Asked about statements from some evangelical Christians opposed to the Murfreesboro mosque that Islam is not a legitimate religion, Land said neither the government nor society should decide which religions are "kosher" and which are not.
"That's not religious liberty; that's toleration," he said.
Land said he will continue to work for religious freedom and feels he can do it just as well from outside the coalition as from inside it.
"I promise you, we're not going to back up in our defense of religious freedom," he said.
The other prominent evangelical Christian member of the coalition, the Rev. Joel Hunter of Orlando-area megachurch Northland, a Church Distributed, said he had heard "surprisingly little" opposition to his participation.
"Most conservative evangelicals I talk to in my own congregation are really clear on First Amendment rights, that every religion has a right to free expression," he said.
He added that, as a pastor, he is in a different position than Land, whose potential constituency includes all Southern Baptists. With almost 16.2 million members, the Nashville-based SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman released a statement on Land's withdrawal writing, "We respect Richard Land. We respect his decision. We wish it were otherwise."