BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley told a church crowd just moments into his new administration that those who have not accepted Jesus as their savior are not his brothers and sisters, shocking some critics who questioned Tuesday whether he can be fair to non-Christians.
"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, his inauguration day, according to The Birmingham News.
The Anti-Defamation League on Tuesday called Bentley's remarks shocking.
"His comments are not only offensive, but also raise serious questions as to whether non-Christians can expect to receive equal treatment during his tenure as governor," said Bill Nigut, the ADL's regional director.
Speaking at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church after the official inaugural ceremony, Bentley told the crowd that he considered anyone who believed in Jesus to be his brothers and sisters regardless of color, but anyone who isn't a Christian doesn't have that same 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.
After his speech, Bentley said he did not mean to insult anyone.
Responding to questions about it, Bentley's office released a statement Tuesday saying he believes "he is the governor of all of Alabama."
"The governor clearly stated that he will be the governor of all Alabamians â€” 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.
Ashfaq Taufique, president of the Birmingham Islamic Society, told The Birmingham News he wasn't sure how Bentley's remarks were intended.
"Does it mean that those who according to him are not saved are less important than those who are saved?" Taufique said. "Does he want those of us who do not belong to the Christian faith to adopt his faith? That should be toned down. That's not what we need. If he means that, I hope he changes it. We don't want evangelical politicians. They can be whatever in their private life."
The official with the Anti-Defamation League, which fights discrimination against Jewish people, said it sounded like Bentley was using the office of governor to advocate for Christian conversion.
"If he does so, he is dancing dangerously close to a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids government from promoting the establishment of any religion," Nigut said.
Associated Press Writer Bob Johnson in Montgomery contributed to this report.