Former U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions, who is campaigning to return to his seat in the U.S. Senate, slammed decisions by the Birmingham Board of Education and the Birmingham Housing Authority to cut ties with the Church of the Highlands over social media likes made by Pastor Chris Hodges as an attack on free speech and religious freedom.
He also urged Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to step in to reverse the decisions.
“The actions taken by the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District and the Birmingham Board of Education against the Church of the Highlands represent an attack on both religious liberty and freedom of speech. This cannot happen in America, and certainly should never happen in Alabama,” Sessions wrote in an extended statement on his campaign’s Facebook page Wednesday.
“The Housing Authority is an extension of the Mayor, and it is Mayor Woodfin's responsibility to call for a reversal of the Authority's outrageous action, and this he must do now. The members of the Board of Education should likewise immediately reverse their blatantly anti-religious decision to terminate lease agreements with the Church of the Highlands,” Sessions said.
English teacher Jasmine Faith Clisby sparked the controversy in recent days after she complained in an earlier report that Hodges followed and liked several social media posts of Turning Point USA leader Charlie Kirk in the wake of national protests over the killing of 46-year-old African American George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Department officers on Memorial Day.
One of the posts reportedly shows two photos — one featuring President Donald Trump standing next to Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks with the caption “The racist Donald Trump in the 1980s,” and the other featuring Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam with two men wearing blackface and a KKK costume with the caption “Progressive Leftist Ralph Northam in the 1980s.”
Hodges has since apologized to his predominantly white but racially diverse congregation over the situation, clarifying that "that is not what I believe," but the agencies moved to cut ties with the megachurch this week.
Denouncing the move, Sessions argued, “Pastor Chris Hodges, who is a truly good and decent person, ‘liked’ three allegedly-insensitive posts, including one that condemned the current Democratic Governor of Virginia for wearing blackface, a meme that questioned why former President Obama was out playing golf despite Michelle Obama's admonition that people should stay home, and a post that dared to call the pandemic the ‘China Virus.’ Because Pastor Hodges works hard to exemplify the love of Christ, he gracefully apologized for having hurt the feelings of those who were alienated by his posts. But for the radical Left, nothing short of total destruction is enough.”
In a statement on why they cut ties with the church, the housing agency said, “Pastor Hodges’ views do not reflect those of HABD and its residents; and Hodges’ values are not in line with those of HABD residents.”
The Birmingham Board of Education also voted Tuesday night to end its leases with Church of the Highlands, which paid an average of $12,000 a month each to rent Parker High School and Woodlawn High School for Sunday worship services. The megachurch has over 20 locations throughout Alabama for services.
Sessions argued that the decision of the Birmingham Board of Education represents a “very real free speech issue.”
“The withholding of public facilities and the refusal to allow a church to minister as a result of a social media ‘like’ implicates freedom of speech in a profound way. It is intolerable for a government agency to deny access and discriminate against a faith-based organization, based on a political or religious disagreement. This is a dangerous trend we're seeing today. It is the vicious and ugly side of political correctness. If this intimidation in the name of ‘tolerance’ by the Birmingham government is allowed to stand, don't be surprised if politically correct officials begin trying to condition government contracts, approvals, and permits on whether the applicant has ever ‘liked’ a social media post that suggests support for President Trump or conservative causes,” he warned.
“As Attorney General and as a United States Senator, I relentlessly championed and defended the First Amendment right of all Americans to speak and to freely exercise their religious beliefs. This is at the foundation of our freedoms as Americans. Protecting religious liberty and freedom of expression and stopping the abuses of political correctness will be a top priority of mine when I return to the Senate.”
Hodges has rejected racism as "evil" and assured that he and his church stand by everyone who has been marginalized, rejected, belittled or abused.