The calls for a change in the tone of public discourse across America's cultural divide came after a staff member at the Family Research Council (FRC), one of the country's leading pro-family organizations, was injured Wednesday (Aug. 15) by a gunman who announced, "I don't like your politics," before opening fire. Leo Johnson, the staff member, subdued the gunman at FRC's Washington, D.C., headquarters and apparently will recover.
While advocates on both sides expressed concern for Johnson and his colleagues and condemned the violence, defenders of the biblical view of marriage and the family decried the rhetoric some feared may have had an effect on the gunman.
"[T]his whole episode is a reminder that freedom of speech must be used responsibly," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "We need to lift the level of civil discourse where we can disagree without demonizing our opponents."
At his blog, LifeWay vice president and evangelical commentator Ed Stetzer wrote that Americans "need to acknowledge that our words matter, and the further we move away from civil discourse, the more we open ourselves up to the potential for people to act out of their anger and bitterness toward each other."
"We must be able to disagree without demonizing or labeling as 'haters' those with whom we disagree," Stetzer said.
"[I]t is time to stop demonizing people who believe they are living out their faith by believing and teaching its values in regards to morality and marriage," he wrote.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), said the shooting "is the clearest sign we've seen that labeling pro-marriage groups as 'hateful' must end."
"For too long national gay rights groups have intentionally marginalized and ostracized pro-marriage groups and individuals by labeling them as 'hateful' and 'bigoted' -- such harmful and dangerous labels deserve no place in American society", he said in a written statement.
Forty of the country's leading organizations supporting homosexual rights and same-sex marriage responded quickly with a joint statement condemning the violence. In a statement issued Aug. 15, they said, "[R]egardless of what emerges as the reason for this shooting, we utterly reject and condemn such violence."
FRC President Tony Perkins thanked the organizations in a Thursday (Aug. 16) news conference outside FRC's headquarters and made a request of them.
"I want to express my appreciation to the groups and organizations that we do not agree with on many public policy issues who have also expressed their outrage at what took place here yesterday," he told reporters. "I appreciate them making those statements, but I would ask them to go a step further and to join us in calling for an end to the reckless rhetoric that I believe led to yesterday's incident that took place right behind me."
Perkins singled out the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for its rhetoric. The SPLC, which tracks what it describes as "hate groups" and individuals, includes FRC on that list with white supremacist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, and neo-Nazi groups, such as the Aryan Nation.
"Let me be clear that Floyd Corkins was responsible for firing the shot yesterday that wounded [Johnson], but Corkins was given a license to shoot an unarmed man by organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center that have been reckless in labeling organizations as hate groups because they disagree with them on public policy," Perkins said.
"And I believe the Southern Poverty Law Center should be held accountable for their reckless use of terminology that is leading to the intimidation and what the FBI here has characterized as an act of domestic terrorism," he said. "There's no room for that in a society such as ours that works through differences that we have on issues in public policy through a peaceful means."
The SPLC described Perkins' "accusation [as] outrageous."
"The SPLC has listed the FRC as a hate group since 2010 because it has knowingly spread false and denigrating propaganda about LGBT people -- not, as some claim, because it opposes same-sex marriage," said Mark Potok, senior fellow of the SPLC.
"Perkins and his allies, seeing an opportunity to score points, are using the attack on their offices to pose a false equivalency between the SPLC's criticisms of the FRC and the FRC's criticisms of LGBT people," he said in a written statement. "It should stop the demonization and affirm the dignity of all people."
Land said, "One has to travel to an alternative universe where logic is unknown and words have lost any objective meaning to describe the Family Research Council as a 'hate group.'
"When groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center outrageously list the Family Research Council as a hate group, there are unfortunately people in our society who may be driven to acts of violence by such inaccurate, mean-spirited and over-heated rhetoric," Land said.
Corkins -- who had volunteered at a Washington community center for LGBT people the last six months, according to The Post -- entered FRC's downtown building Aug. 15, met Johnson in the lobby and, according to a witness' account, said "words to the effect of, 'I don't like your politics,'" as reported in an affidavit by a FBI special agent. According to a surveillance video, he pulled a 9mm pistol from his backpack and began shooting at Johnson, who subdued Corkins and separated the pistol from him despite being wounded in the arm. Another security guard called 911, and police and FBI agents responded.
Corkins had two more magazines of 9mm ammunition, and his backpack contained a box of 50 additional rounds of ammunition and 15 Chick-fil-A sandwiches, according to the affidavit.
Chick-fil-A has received an onslaught of criticism in recent weeks from gay groups and their allies since its president, Dan Cathy, defended traditional marriage in a news article by the Biblical Recorder, the North Carolina Baptist newspaper, that Baptist Press republished.
Chick-fil-A does not "underwrite this organization," Perkins told reporters Aug. 16 in an effort to clear up what he implied have been misleading reports. The restaurant chain gave FRC a $1,000 donation "a number of years ago," he said.
Johnson is FRC's building operation manager and also serves secondarily as a security guard, Perkins said. Johnson, who was not in uniform, does not carry a gun, the FRC president said.
Among those endorsing the LGBT anti-violence statement were leaders of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project; Freedom to Marry; Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD); Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund; Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; Human Rights Campaign; Log Cabin Republicans; National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; Parents, Families, Friends of Lesbians and Gays; Service members Legal Defense Network, and Truth Wins Out.
Stetzer is vice president of research and ministry development for LifeWay Christian Resources.