- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2005

Church expels

nine dissidents

RALEIGH, N.C. — A North Carolina church expelled nine members last week because they refused to support their pastor’s Republican views, members said.

The members, three of them deacons at East Waynesville Baptist Church, were voted out last Monday night at the church in Haywood County, just west of Asheville. All nine walked out after Pastor Chan Chandler told them he expected them to sign forms supporting his political and moral beliefs. After they left, members who remained voted to boot the dissenters.

“He went on and on about how he’s going to bring politics up and, if we didn’t agree with him, we should leave,” said Isaac Sutton, 75, a deacon who was voted out after 12 years at the church. “I think I deserve the right to vote for who I want to.”

Mr. Chandler could not be reached for comment.

Now, the church, which sits in the mountains nearly 300 miles west of Raleigh, is in turmoil. Several members are talking with a lawyer.

Waynesville lawyer David Wijewickrama said at least nine members have called his office. He said he doesn’t yet know the details of the case, but has agreed to review it.

“They sound like the upstanding members of the church who have been there for decades,” Mr. Wijewickrama said. “These are not the type of people who would scream wolf.”

Mr. Sutton, of Clyde, N.C., and other members said the pastor often told the approximately 100-member congregation, from the pulpit, that they should not vote for candidates who support abortion rights. In October, just before the presidential election, Mr. Chandler said anyone who planned to vote for Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry should leave the church, two members told the News & Observer.

Since then, Mr. Chandler’s frequent political sermons have caused a deep rift in the congregation, said Selma Morris, 78, a member for more than 30 years.

“I told him, ‘You owe God an apology, and you owe the congregation an apology because you used his pulpit for political purposes,’” said Mrs. Morris, the church treasurer. “You don’t do that in a Baptist church.”

She said Mr. Chandler was undeterred.

Although she was not at the meeting last Monday and is still a church member, Mrs. Morris, of Waynesville, is among the members who called a lawyer. She said the votes violated church bylaws. She also said that she expects the church to lose its tax-exempt status because, under federal law, tax-exempt organizations cannot endorse political candidates.

On Friday, when news of the incident broke, the church became the subject of a nationwide furor. Internet chat groups were abuzz, and politicos began making statements.

People for the American Way, a liberal group that advocates for the separation of church and state, released a statement condemning the pastor’s deeds and demanding action from President Bush.

“What have we come to when the doors of a church are closed to longtime members because of their political beliefs,” said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, “when a pastor equates political support for the ‘wrong’ candidate with a sin before God?”

North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Meek also criticized the church.

“If these reports are true, this minister is not only acting extremely inappropriately by injecting partisan politics into a house of worship, but he is also potentially breaking the law and threatening the church’s … non-profit status,” Mr. Meek said.

Efforts by the News & Observer to reach the North Carolina Republican Party and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina failed. George Bullard, associate executive director-treasurer for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, told the Asheville Citizen-Times that a pastor has every right to disallow membership if a church’s bylaws allow for the pastor to establish criteria for membership.

“Membership is a local church issue,” he said. “It is not something the state convention would enter into.” Baptist churches are autonomous and answer to no central authority.

Meanwhile, several church members, including Mrs. Morris, spent most of Friday talking to reporters. “I’ve been in church all my life,” she said, “and I’ve never witnessed anything like this.”

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