NASHVILLE – An animal rights organization is urging a Nashville church to stop using live animals during their services.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent a letter Wednesday to Cornerstone Nashville after the church incorporated several animals from a South Carolina park into its Sunday back-to-school worship service.
"All animals are individuals, created by God's wondrous hand, and they feel joy, sadness, loneliness, and fear, just as humans do," the letter states. "Using them in these types of displays undermines what it means to be a good steward of God's creation."
Pastor Galen Davis, the associate lead pastor for the Madison church, used the animals, – including a cougar, horse, lion and ram – as teaching illustrations during his sermon. During the Mascot Live service, he linked characteristics of each animal to a biblical message. They were in cages and pens while Davis preached.
"Here is what the world tries to teach us. The enemy has a voice and that voice is the voice of fear. Jesus has a voice and that voice of faith," said Davis, as he stood in front of the lion, according to a video of the sermon. "Let us not confuse the scream of fear as the roar of faith."
Periodically throughout the year, Cornerstone holds special services that feature large-scale, illustrative sermons — including a rodeo inside the church's sanctuary in 2016.
"Certainly, I don't believe in abusing animals," said Pastor Maury Davis, who is leaving Cornerstone soon to continue consulting for other churches. "But, using animals, to me, is not wrong."
His son, Galen, is transitioning to become the new senior pastor.
Maury Davis, who has used animals in past sermons, says PETA tends to send the church a letter whenever they do and encourages its supporters to do the same. He does not plan to respond to Wednesday's correspondence from the organization because the church and PETA just disagree on this issue.
"If I thought there could be an intelligent discussion, I would be willing to have that, but just arguing with people that are making really outlandish claims would be a waste of time and energy and fruitless," Davis said in an interview.
In its letter, PETA took specific issue with Cornerstone using animals from Hollywild Animal Park in South Carolina.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture fined the park nearly $19,000 for violations after a two-year investigation found that animals were held in unsafe enclosures and lacked veterinary care among other chronic issues, according to the Greenville News.
The animal advocacy group says Hollywild has a "notorious history of failing animals" and keeps a list of citations against the park going back to the early 1990s.
"We hope that, upon reflection, you'll agree that this cruelty doesn't reflect the tenets of your church and that you'll decide to leave animals out of your future events," the letter reads.
Davis said that while he is not an expert on animal welfare, he has visited Hollywild three times and has never seen any indication of animal abuse.
He also pointed out that a representative of Tennessee's wildlife agency was on site Sunday to ensure the animals were transported safely and placed in the proper enclosures.
Follow Holly Meyer on Twitter: @HollyAMeyer