May 8th, 2012
02:02 PM ET
By David Mattingly and Eric Marrapodi, CNN
Fayetteville, North Carolina (CNN)– A pastor who advocated hitting boys who display effeminate qualities is expressing regret for the sermon he delivered in the midst of a controversial marriage amendment battle.
"Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist," Sean Harris, the pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, told his congregants in his sermon on April 28. He continued, "Man up, give them a good punch, OK. 'You're not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you're going to be a male.'"
This week Harris said, "I was telling them in strong words that were not careful. What did I learn this week? Be more careful with your words."
Harris' comments came in a heated environment in the Tarheel State. On Tuesday, voters will cast ballots on Amendment One, which would amend the state constitution to say that "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State."
While North Carolina already has a law banning same-sex marriage, the passage of the amendment would effectively ban same-sex civil unions and domestic partnerships.
Churches across the state have taken opposing sides on the issue. George Reed, the head of the North Carolina Council of Churches, which is opposing the amendment, says the support breaks along traditional battle lines. He says many Catholic and independent evangelical churches support the amendment and many mainline churches oppose it.
On Sunday, a full-page advertisement from the world's most famous evangelist, long-time North Carolina resident Billy Graham, ran in 14 newspapers across the state.
The ad featured the 93-year-old evangelist's picture and read, "I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage." It continued, "The Bible is clear – God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote for the marriage amendment on Tuesday, May 8. God bless you as you vote.”
Graham has shied away from other hot-button political issues in the past. His spokesman, A. Larry Ross, noted he had kept silent when similar ballot issues appeared in 30 other states but felt compelled to speak up this time because the debate was raging in his home state.
“For him it’s a timeless message, not a timely issue. He’s preached this for 60 years. He was reinforcing the positive message he has been preaching," Ross said. “For him it’s not a political issue, it’s a moral issue.”
Harris' controversial sermon was focused on the amendment debate and he is encouraging his members to vote for the marriage amendment.
Harris said he preaches a biblical interpretation at the Berean Baptist Church – that homosexuality is a choice and that the Bible teaches it is sinful behavior.
The church is an independent congregation that began in 1967 after members left Grace Baptist church "in reaction to the liberal influence in the Southern Baptist Convention," its website says.
When Harris' sermon hit the Internet, it became a flashpoint for the statewide debate. Harris says he became the target of angry, hateful messages filled with profanity and multiple death threats after telling parents how to deal with children and effeminate behavior.
"You know, it's amazing how 'punch' has been equated to inciting violence against gay youth. That's not what I meant," the pastor said.
Instead, he said, the reference should be interpreted differently: "A shove, an affirmation. You see coaches give their players a good punch, a good slug. It's a way of affirming the gender distinctions between a male and a female," he said.
Anyone looking for a sweeping apology will be disappointed.
"I was apologizing for failing to say the right thing, for failing to be more careful, to make sure that no one thinks that Sean Harris is suggesting, as was said – although I never said this – ... 'Beat the gay outta children.' Those weren't my words, I didn't even believe there is such a thing as gay children. So I wasn't saying that. I was dealing with effeminate behavior, and instructing parents to affirm the manhood or the womanhood in their children," he said.
Congregants have stood by and supported their pastor. Prior to the service on Sunday, Harris received a standing ovation. Police kept watch outside the church. Demonstrators were kept at a distance.
"He always has a little levity into it and that's why we all laughed. We know our pastor," one member said.
Harris said he won't apologize for for what he called doing his job.
"No, I don't think that I need to apologize for preaching to my people what the word of God says. That's my responsibility."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.