Birmingham Schools, Housing Authority Sever Ties With Church of the Highlands Over Pastor’s Social Media Activity
Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the actions "an attack on both religious liberty and freedom of speech."
This article was updated Thursday to add comments from former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Two public agencies in Alabama have cut ties with Church of the Highlands. The church is the largest in Alabama and has an extensive history of serving the community, including setting up a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at the church. The decisions to sever ties follow controversy about the senior pastor’s social media activity.
Senior Pastor Chris Hodges came under fire for liking several posts by Charlie Kirk, founder of the nonprofit conservative student organization Turning Point USA. Hodges apologized last week, saying he now realized the posts in question were “hurtful and divisive.”
The Birmingham Board of Education voted Tuesday night to end its leases with Church of the Highlands. The church rented two of the city’s high schools for Sunday worship, constituting two of its more than 20 campuses statewide.
Jeff Sessions Calls for Birmingham Authorities to Reverse Their Actions
Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is running for to regain his seat in the U.S. Senate, denounced the decisions on Wednesday, calling the actions of the Birmingham authorities against the Church of the Highlands “an attack on both religious liberty and freedom of speech.”
“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,” Sessions said in a statement.” 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.”
“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,” Sessions stated. “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.”
What Sparked the Controversy?
In a Facebook post, Birmingham High School English teacher Jasmine Faith Clisby pointed out that Hodges followed Charlie Kirk and repeatedly “liked” his posts.
“I do not attend Church of the Highlands,” Clisby told AL.com. “I would be upset if it comes off as me judging him,” she said. “It’s not that. I’m not saying he’s a racist. I’m saying he likes someone who post things that do not seem culturally sensitive to me.”
Clisby reportedly provided screenshots showing that Hodges “liked” several of Charlie Kirk’s posts. One post juxtaposed photos of President Donald Trump and Virginia governor Ralph Northam in the ’80s with text questioning the perception that Trump is a racist and Northam is not. Another post juxtaposed Michelle Obama saying people should stay home with a photo purporting to show former president Barack Obama golfing. A third screenshot showed Hodges liking a post in which Charlie Kirk is giving blood, with part of the caption reading, “We all must do our part to defeat China Virus.” The Stream has provided the above hyperlinks to the posts based on the descriptions of the posts reported by AL.com.
“One of the main things Kirk harps on is white privilege being a myth,” Clisby told AL.com.
Church of the Highlands’s relationship with the housing authority allowed the church to offer social services and resident outreach programs such as mentoring, social service activities and support groups at the housing authority’s Campus of Hope and nine of its public housing communities, according to AL.com.
“Commissioners agreed that Pastor Hodges’ views do not reflect those of [Housing Authority of the Birmingham District] and its residents; and Hodges’ values are not in line with those of HABD residents. HABD and Campus of Hope staff will continue to work with other faith-based organizations in the community to identify resources that will replace the services that were provided by [Church of the Highlands],” the housing authority said in a statement Monday, AL.com reports.
“Jesus Christ teaches us to love our neighbors,” Hodges said in a statement to AL.com on Tuesday regarding the controversy. “In these complex times we want to do more than ever to listen, love and serve our city. We want to publicly thank the Birmingham Housing Authority for the opportunity they provided us to serve them over the years. We continue to support their work and encourage others to do the same.”
Donald Trump Jr. and Charlie Kirk Respond
Donald Trump Jr. responded on Twitter to the news that the Birmingham housing authority was cutting ties with Church of the Highlands, calling it “absolutely insane.”
“They’re canceling the pastor of the largest (and most racially diverse) church in Alabama just because he liked some of [Charlie Kirk]’s posts,” Trump Jr. wrote.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) June 9, 2020
Kirk was scheduled to speak at Church of the Highland’s youth group, Fox News reported. Kirk told Fox News he is “deeply saddened” that he is “being slandered by the mob for stating mainstream pieces of widely-cited data and public information.”
“I have had wonderful times of fellowship with Chris in the past and think he is a gifted ambassador for Christ,” Kirk told Fox News. “I didn’t ask him to like my posts, he did so on his own. I will never apologize for stating irrefutable facts, and nor should he.”
Hodges’ Apologies: “I Now Realize They Were Hurtful and Divisive, and I Sincerely Apologize”
“White supremacy or any supremacy other than Christ, is of the devil,” Hodges said May 31 during the Sunday morning service. “Some have even brought our church or even me into question. They’re wondering, where do you really stand? I think some saw something on social media that questioned my character. And, I’ll own it, by the way, but that is not what I believe and it is not what we teach.”
“I would love for you to not just look at a microscopic zoom in, but look at the totality of 37 years of ministry and 19 years as a church,” Hodges said during the service. “And I think if you looked at that it would be abundantly clear that we value every person.”
Church of the Highlands is an evangelical multi-site megachurch with its main campus in Birmingham, Alabama. The church has three outreach ministry centers called Dream Centers serving local communities. It founded and funds a health clinic, Christ Health Center, that offers medical, dental, counseling and pharmaceutical services with sliding scale fees. The church serves in 20 local correctional facilities and in 2019 served over 700 survivors of human trafficking, according to its financial report. It also created the Serve app through which churches can connect church members with local service projects.
Hodges also apologized in a letter to his church congregation on Tuesday, June 2 — his third public apology. Here’s the letter in full, as reproduced by AL.com:
I want to talk to you from my heart.
The first thing that I want to do is apologize. I’m sorry. As a pastor and, more importantly, as a follower of Jesus, I work to consider every action carefully, weigh every word, and be respectful of every person and opinion, as Christ taught.
I realize that I have hurt people that I love deeply because I “liked” multiple insensitive social media posts. Each one was a mistake. I own it. I’m sorry. I’ve learned so much in the past few days about racial disparities in America. I wish I could sit down and have a conversation with everyone impacted or hurt by my actions.
I have realized I can’t thoughtlessly scroll through social media and click “like” on a post while not fully understanding all that post represents. After taking the time to review and reflect, I can tell you those social media posts that I “liked” do not reflect, in any way, my true feelings or beliefs. I now realize they were hurtful and divisive, and I sincerely apologize.
I own my mistakes and ask forgiveness from those I have offended. Please know that I have learned, and will continue to learn, so much from this.
Over the last 20 years, our church and I have fought for the disenfranchised, marginalized, and hurting of ALL races in our community. But this week, I’ve learned that even with 20 years of loving and serving people, it’s still possible to have a blind spot that you just didn’t know was there.
I realize it is my responsibility to have more conversations to become better aware of the pain and the hurt, and to understand ALL people better.
As painful as this has been for many of you, it has opened my eyes to something that I just didn’t fully understand. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t realize I didn’t see it, and comprehend it like I should.
Through conversations this week where I just listened, I am learning more about unconscious bias and privilege. I have always had the privilege of never being followed around a store because of the color of my skin. That’s a privilege I didn’t even realize I had. I’ve never had to sit down with my kids and teach them the beauty of their skin color because someone at their school had devalued them merely because of it.
I can tell you this: With revelation comes responsibility. I have the responsibility of learning new thoughts and new points of view. Conversations I wish I had engaged in years ago will now shape who I will be in the years to come. Soon, I will be holding forums at our church to hear from Highlands members of all races, to share their experiences and heart. I am determined to listen, learn, and be a part of the solution.
I understand my influence, not only in our church locally, but as a voice to many churches globally. I take my responsibilities very seriously. I love you so much, and I’m deeply sorry that I hurt you. I have spent my lifetime loving and pouring into people, and moving forward, I will prove to you that even at 56 years old, you can still learn, you can get better, you can make changes and love people more deeply. I’m committed to that.
I can promise you one thing: As a pastor, I will continuously do my best to lead you to Jesus, and I will also teach you, by my actions, what it looks like to need Him. This won’t be the last mistake that I make or the last bit of mercy I will need. I need God’s compassion and your mercy.
All of us need God’s grace and mercy in this season, and I’m asking you to help me, help us, get better. Let’s all learn more, pray more, love better, and stand stronger so that we can see His Kingdom come, His will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.