The Rev. Louie Giglio, who was to deliver the benediction at President Obama’s… (Lee Steffen, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — An evangelical minister who was asked to give the benediction at President Obama's inauguration ceremony pulled out of the event Thursday after a controversy about comments he made against homosexuality in the 1990s.
On Tuesday, the presidential inaugural committee announced that it had invited the Rev. Louie Giglio, head pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, to participate in the Jan. 21 ceremony. Soon afterward, the liberal website ThinkProgress posted excerpts and an audio file of a sermon Giglio gave in the mid-1990s, in which he criticizes homosexuality as profoundly antithetical to Christianity.
"You come to only one conclusion: Homosexuality is less than God's best for his creation," Giglio said in the sermon. "It is less than God's best for us, and everything in our lives that is less than God's best for us and his plan for us and his design for us is sin. That's God's voice."
After having courted the gay and lesbian community during his first term with efforts like the elimination of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, the president's inclusion of Giglio, 54, in the inauguration quickly proved awkward. The Obama administration is already fending off criticism from some on the left over negative remarks made by secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel in 1998 about a gay diplomat.
No one answered the phone Thursday at Passion City Church, whose ministry focuses on young people. But on the church's website, Giglio wrote that after discussions between his team and the administration, he had decided to withdraw from the inauguration so as not to become a distraction.
"The issue of homosexuality (which a particular message of mine some 20 years ago addressed) is one of the most difficult our nation will navigate," Giglio wrote. "However, individuals' rights of freedom, and the collective right to hold differing views on any subject is a critical balance we, as a people, must recover and preserve."
Typically, clergy members asked to participate in presidential events undergo rigorous vetting, but mistakes occasionally occur, said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
The Obama inauguration committee appeared to acknowledge the slip. "We were not aware of Pastor Giglio's past comments at the time of his selection and they don't reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this inaugural," said spokeswoman Addie Whisenant. "Pastor Giglio was asked to deliver the benediction in large part for his leadership in combating human trafficking around the world."
Gay rights activists praised Giglio's departure. Evangelical groups condemned it. A rising star in the evangelical community, Giglio did not disavow the sermon, which represents the way many conservative Christians view homosexuality. For the last two decades, American Christianity has been divided, sometimes acrimoniously, over growing societal acceptance of gays and lesbians and what certain Old Testament verses say about same-sex interactions.
The country's increased religious diversity, Green said, can make choosing clergy for an event like the inauguration exceedingly delicate.
"The symbolism is very important when clergy are involved in a presidential ceremony," Green said. "Different kinds of clergy are invited to show that the president has support from and supports the religious diversity of America. You have to assemble a good program now that might not offend somebody. But because we have faith-based disagreements in America, that's not easy to do."