Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley offended some of his new constituents this week when he told a church crowd that he would only accept as his brothers and sisters those who had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.
"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," Bentley said Monday at a church service held moments after his inauguration, according to The Birmingham News.
Some non-Christians said they were offended by the comments and questioned whether the new governor would offer equal treatment to people of other faiths and non-believers.
"We live in a country that is hugely diverse," said David Silverman, president of American Atheists, the country's oldest atheist civil rights group. "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 and bigoted."
Speaking to a mixed-race crowd at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church, Bentley, a Republican, said he considered anyone who believed in Christ to be a brother regardless of color, but people who were not Christian could not have as close a relationship to him.
"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," Bentley said.
Trying to clarify his remarks Bentley's office issued a statement Tuesday, but for more minority groups the damage was done.
A spokesman for the Anti Defamation League said the governor's comments were "stunning" and "distressing" and were tantamount to proselytizing.
"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 ADL's regional director.
"On the day that he is sworn in as governor, he's sending a statement to the public saying if you're not Christian you can't be with me. From our point of view that is proselytizing for Christianity and coming very close to a violation of the First Amendment."
Responding to the backlash, Governor Bentley's office Tuesday released a statement clarifying his comments.
"The governor clearly stated that he will be the governor of all Alabamians — Democrat, Republican and Independent, young, old, black and white, rich and poor. As stated in his [inaugural] address, Gov. Bentley believes his job is to make everyone's lives better," the statement said.
Bentley is not the first recently sworn in governor this year to inflame racial or religious tensions. Last week the new governor of Maine, Republican Paul LePage, told critics they could "kiss my butt" over his decision to not attend a Martin Luther King Day celebration. LePage, who has a black adopted son, said he did not have time to attend the event.