SPOKANE — Leaders in Spokane’s faith community condemned a local pastor after he called for the killing of parents of transgender children in a video sermon last month that Spokane police are investigating for potential criminality.
In an April 23 video that has since been removed titled “In Defense of Children,” Sure Foundation Baptist Church Pastor Jason Graber called for executing the parents of transgender children.
“They need to be convicted in trial and immediately shot in the back of the head, and then we can string them up above a bridge so the public can see the consequences of that kind of wickedness,” Graber said in the video. “There should be no excuse to not put these people to death.”
Graber’s words went viral, albeit briefly, over the weekend.
The threats were met with widespread condemnation from dozens of religious leaders from the Faith Leaders and Leaders of Conscience of Eastern Washington who co-authored a letter that described Graber’s language “as an incitement to violence and terrorism.”
“We denounce those who call for the terrorizing and killing of any human being in the name of faith,” the letter said. “Repentance is a Christian practice, and we strongly recommend that Jason Graber, as a Christian, repent for his words of terrorism, hate and violence and return to a humble walk with his God.”
Despite the threatening language, the language was not necessarily criminal, Spokane Police Department spokeswoman Julie Humphreys said.
“We had a number of citizens reach out to us and brought to it our attention,” Humphreys said. “At this point, we don’t see any evidence of a criminal violation. It appears that speech is protected under the Constitution.”
Graber, originally from Bend, Oregon, leads the Sure Foundation Baptist Church’s Spokane location at 307 W. Francis Ave.
According to its own website, Sure Foundation Baptist Church is an independent and explicitly anti-LGBTQ church that does not allow gay people in its attendance. The church adheres to strict beliefs around the Bible and believes in going back to “the old paths.”
First founded in Vancouver, in 2016 as a satellite church of Verity Baptist Church, of Sacramento, California, Sure Foundation later became independent in 2018 under the leadership of Pastor Aaron Thompson. The church is connected to the New Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, which is described as a “loose network of approximately 30+ independent churches” that share similar anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ beliefs, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Sure Foundation Baptist Church’s YouTube page includes various online sermons, some of which mock Jewish beliefs.
The Southern Poverty Law Center identified the church as a hate group with chapters in Washington and Hawaii in 2021.
It’s not clear how big the church’s Spokane following is, although it describes itself as a “small but growing family of like minded believers.”
It’s not the first time Graber has made anti-LGBTQ threats. In another video that’s since been removed, Graber called for the public execution of gay people with either stones or rifles and urged preachers to send gay people “back into the closet where they belong.”
Pastor Thompson was criticized in the Columbian newspaper in Vancouver for anti-LGBTQ comments after the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs in 2022.
Hate crimes occur when someone causes physical injury to someone, damages property or makes threats that cause a person or group to fear for their safety or property based on their race, color, faith, nationality, gender sexual orientation, disability or other identities.
Deciding when something is a “hate crime” can be difficult, Humphreys said.
“If they named somebody, then that crosses over to a true threat to somebody,” Humphreys said. “It’s shocking to everybody because the words are so hateful, but it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily criminal words.”
This difference is central to our First Amendment rights, said Gonzaga professor Kristine Hoover, former leader of the university’s Center for Hate Studies.
“The struggle of silencing anyone’s voice is a problem,” she said. “At the same time, there are also consequences for the speech we choose to use. In my opinion, this is the work we are called to do as engaged citizens in our community. We cannot turn a blind eye to this.”
Veradale United Church of Christ Rev. Gen Heywood, who co-authored the letter condemning Graber, said that she and other religious leaders stand with the parents of transgender children, some of whom attend her church.
While Graber may not be suspected of a criminal act, Heywood sees his language as “connected to the continuing rise of violence, or suggested violence,” against the LGBTQ community.
“Further, as people of many faiths and organizations of conscience, we ask every citizen to step back from any ideology that uses violence and intimidation, and to prayerfully consider what constitutes responsible public speech,” Heywood and her co-authors wrote.