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Baptists free to be Masons; some beliefs flagged

The Southern Baptist Convention says membership in the Masons is a matter of personal conscience, although many teachings are "not compatible with" Christianity and Southern Baptist doctrine.

Meanwhile, delegates to the 15-million-member denomination's annual convention which ended Thursday in Houston, adopted a resolution to "separate" the church from President Bill Clinton's policies on abortion and homosexual rights and urge him to "affirm biblical morality" in public office.

Both actions took place during activities at Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center. The convention attracted 17,000 "messengers" _ the Southern Baptist term for voting delegates.

In another action, delegates approved an amendment to the church's constitution that allows the denomination to expel churches that "affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior." That change represents a departure from long-standing Baptist tradition that eschews hierarchical structure and puts great stock in the independence of local congregations.

Sparking the initiative were actions by two North Carolina congregations that conservatives believed indicated leniency toward homosexuality.

The Masons, a fraternal body with an estimated membership of 2.5-million in the United States, had taken out full-page ads in both of Houston's major daily newspapers urging Baptists not to tamper with sections of a controversial report on Freemasonry that recommended leaving membership up to individuals.

Delegates approved the report, prepared by the denomination's Home Mission Board, without amendments by about a 5-1 margin, turning back an attempt to toughen it by labeling Freemasonry a "mixture of paganism and Christianity" that is "condemned by God."

Critics have assailed Freemasonry for its secrecy and private practices and elaborate rituals which they charge smack of paganism. They also contend the organization's benevolence activities can lead to belief that good works _ not faith in Jesus _ can lead to salvation.