Daniel Vestal preaches his final sermon as executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship June 22, 2012, at the CBF General Assembly. (ABPnews photo by Jeff Brumley)
Daniel Vestal preaches his final sermon as executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship June 22, 2012, at the CBF General Assembly. (ABPnews photo by Jeff Brumley)

2012: A year in review

Controversy over health-care reform and human sexuality, and changes in the 21-year-old Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, dominated ABPnews headlines in 2012.

By Bob Allen

Here are some of the top newsmakers of 2012 as reported by ABPnews.

Obamacare

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler observed in January that Health and Human Services regulations, including pregnancy in “preventive services” that insurers must provide, is “not only a Catholic issue.”

Baptist-affiliated Louisiana College filed a federal lawsuit Feb. 18 claiming that some of the FDA-approved birth-control methods are in fact abortifacients and that requiring faith-based institutions to provide them is a violation of religious liberty.

East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University filed a similar lawsuit Oct. 9. Independent Baptist Liberty University scored a win Nov. 26 when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered review of a lower-court decision against the university.

Meanwhile, Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based business owned by Baptists, received a setback Nov. 19 when a federal judge ruled that the Constitution’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion applies only to individuals, not corporations.

Numerous cases are working their way through the courts, and the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality in 2013.

Gay marriage

First Baptist Church in Seattle performed a group same-sex wedding ceremony Dec. 9, the first day gays could legally wed in Washington. Washington joined Maine and Maryland to become the first three states to legalize gay marriage by referendum. Marriage-equality measures prior to 2012 came through legislators or courts but had always failed when placed on the ballot.

In North Carolina, Baptists lined up on bothsides on an amendment to the state’s constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman approved by voters in May. Chick-fil-A head Dan Cathy, a Southern Baptist, sparked controversy in an interview published by Baptist Press by pleading “guilty as charged” to the claim the company is anti-gay marriage. Talk of a boycott prompted Fox broadcaster Mike Huckabee, also a Southern Baptist, to call for a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on Aug. 1.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship teamed with Mercer University to sponsor a highly anticipated – and controversial -- [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant in April. The conference was planned due to intense interest in a breakout session on same-sex attraction at the 2010 CBF General Assembly in Charlotte, N.C.

Speakers acknowledged that Christians no longer share a consensus that sex outside of marriage is always wrong and advocated long-term committed relationships as the best model for Christians struggling to makes sense of changing attitudes about sexual expression.

Public disagreement between the Fellowship’s top elected and employed leaders about whether the CBF should reverse an organizational policy that bans the hiring of gays intensified interest in the conference, which by all accounts was well received by attendees on both sides of the issue.

CBF transition

For the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, 2012 marked an “in-between year” between the moderate Baptist movement’s past and future. Daniel Vestal, the second permanent chief executive of the moderate Baptist group that separated from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1991, ended his 15-year tenure as executive coordinator with a sermon at the CBF General Assembly in June.

Several top-level executives at the Atlanta-based CBF also stepped down, opening the door for new blood in an organization that for years experienced relatively low attrition. A committee appointed to find Vestal’s successor is scheduled to announce a candidate Jan. 18.

The June 20-23 assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, also featured adoption of a new model for identity, governance and financial support intended to guide the moderate Baptist group formed in 1991 for the next 20 years.

The recommendations, the result of a two-year study that included more than 100 listening sessions conducted by a blue-ribbon 2012 Task Force chaired by Alabama pastor David Hull, are intended to improve cooperation among state and regional CBF affiliates and ministry partners and move decision-making closer to the local church.

For the first time, it includes a process to allow a congregation to publicly affiliate with the CBF in a formal way beyond just giving money.

Richard Land

ABPnews was among the first mass media to report the March 31 broadcast of Richard Land Live, when the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission accused African-American leaders of exploiting the shooting death of black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin for political gain.

Land was criticized by fellow Southern Baptists for remarks viewed as racially insensitive and counterproductive to the SBC’s attempt to improve its image on race by electing its first black president. It was plagiarism, however, failing to properly source the use of quoted material on air, that earned rebuke of ERLC trustees by canceling his weekly radio show.

Land, 65, later announced plans to retire Oct. 23, 2013, 25 years to the day he took over as one of the first agency heads elected in what came to be known as the “conservative resurgence” in the nation’s second-largest faith group.

Other high-profile stories included decisions by LifeWay Christian Resources to stop selling DVDs of “The Blind Side” movie over complaints about profanity and a racial slur, and not to stock a highly anticipated book titled A Year of Biblical Womanhood that is critical of SBC doctrine that wives must submit to their husbands.