Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama met with religious leaders and issued an apology today for saying after his inauguration Monday that he wished non-Christians would become his brothers and sisters in Christ.
Several civil rights groups said the comments Bentley, a Republican, made at church service following his inauguration were offensive and tantamount to proselytizing.
"If anyone from other religions felt disenfranchised by the language, I want to say I am sorry. I am sorry if I offended anyone in any way," Bentley said outside his office at the state capitol.
Bentley was supposed to meet with members of the Birmingham Jewish Federation later this month, but moved the meeting to today, and included leaders of other religious groups.
Addressing a crowd Monday at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church in Montgomery, the new governor said, " Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."
"If the Holy Spirit lives in you that makes you my brothers and sisters. Anyone who has not accepted Jesus, I want to be your brothers and sisters, too," he said.
Following the initial comments many civil right groups objected to the comments and called on the governor to apologize.
"It is stunning to me that he'd make those remarks. It's distressing because of the suggestion that he feels that people who aren't Christian are not entitled to love and respect," said Bill Nigut, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said, "The governor basically said: 'If you're not like me, you're second-class.' This is a man puts the Bible above the Constitution and his preacher above the president. His words are disgusting and bigoted and reinforce Alabama's reputation for being backward."
Following the meeting, Montgomery Rabbi Elliot Stevens said, "I do not think the governor meant anything negative," according to WSFA-TV.
"The governor had intended no offense by his remarks. He is the governor of all the people, Christians, non-Christians alike," a spokesman for the governor told ABCNews.com following the meeting.