A Florida school board has decided not to cancel the lease of a Southern Baptist church that meets in a public high school over sermons criticized as bashing gays.

By Bob Allen

A controversial Southern Baptist pastor claimed victory Aug. 3 after Miami-Dade County School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho decided not to evict his two-year-old church from meeting in a high school for preaching that homosexuality is a sin.

The district launched an investigation into whether Impact Miami Church and Pastor Jack Hakimian violated the district’s bullying and non-discrimination policies by preaching sermons that gays can and should change and comparing pedophilia to attempts to “desensitize” and “normalize” homosexual behavior in the media.

After the Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit law firm affiliated with Liberty University, threatened to sue on First Amendment grounds, the superintendent said there would be no action to terminate the church’s lease contract as long as it continues to pay its rent and keep its insurance coverage current.

“The school district acknowledges the constitutional right of all persons to express themselves freely,” Carvalho said in a memo to members of the school board. “Our firm belief is that, under the law, constitutionally protected freedom of speech for all, including those who lease our facilities, must be observed even when it may be perceived as offensive to some.”

The church, affiliated with the Miami Baptist Association, Florida Baptist State Convention and Southern Baptist Convention, sparked controversy when a local news reporter asked school board members about allegedly anti-Semitic and anti-gay remarks by Hakimian during church services at North Miami Senior High School, which Impact Miami rents for about $1,500 a month.

School officials did not find any evidence of anti-Semitism but told a local TV station that the pastor’s position on homosexuality “appears to be contrary to school board policy as well as the basic principles of humanity.”

Upon legal review, however, the school district determined that the church’s beliefs are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

A statement on the Impact Miami website says the church believes that “homosexuality is a sexual orientation and lifestyle outside of God’s perfect design like all other sins,” and that “homosexuals like all other sinners can manage or control their particular sin by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.”

Prior to the superintendent’s decision, Hakimian warned the Florida Baptist Witness that the threat to his church put all Miami churches at risk.

“I don’t underestimate what they can do to our local Baptist churches if they see us as a problem,” Hakimian told the Florida Baptist Convention newspaper July 27. “I don’t underestimate their power to give Baptists and conservatives, Catholics and others, a very difficult time in this town.”

“In recent days we have seen stepped-up attacks against free speech,” Mat Staver, founder chairman of Liberty Counsel, said in a press release. “It is outrageous that a public school superintendent could think he has the right to threaten revocation of a lease because of what the pastor preaches in the pulpit.”

“No public official is above the law,” said Staver, who also serves as dean of Liberty University School of Law. “The First Amendment stands as a bulwark against homo-fascism.”