Associated Baptist Press May 6, 2005 (05-43) N.C. church removes members for political views, deacon says By Steve DeVane and Greg Warner WAYNESVILLE, N.C. (ABP) -- A Baptist deacon says he and eight other members of a North Carolina church were removed from membership because they disagreed with the pastor's political views. Frank Lowe said he had been a member of the 400-member East Waynesville Baptist Church for 43 years before he and the others were voted out May 3 for not agreeing with the conservative political views of pastor Chan Chandler. In October, one month prior to the November 2004 presidential election, Chandler announced in a sermon that anyone who was supporting John Kerry should repent or resign from the church, Lowe said, and then the pastor offered to hold the door for them to leave. The controversy at the church reached a climax Monday, May 2, when the pastor invited all church members to a deacons meeting. At the beginning of the meeting, according to Lowe, the pastor said anyone who didn't agree with his political views should leave the meeting. Lowe said he and eight others, including his wife, Thelma, left. The pastor then called the church into a business session and the congregation voted to terminate the memberships of those who left, Lowe said. Among those dismissed were three deacons, he said. The pastor's apparent endorsement of a candidate for president prior to an election could endanger East Waynesville's tax-exempt status. Federal law prevents churches and other charities organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code from officially endorsing political candidates or parties. Chandler, the pastor, could not be reached for comment. WLOS-TV in nearby Asheville reported that Chandler declined an interview but said "the actions were not politically motivated." Janet Webb, a church member who was at the meeting, declined to say what happened during the meeting but said that Chandler is "a man of God who only preaches against sin and to win people to Jesus Christ." Lowe said he usually votes Democratic, while his wife votes Republican. But Chandler "says my political views support abortion and homosexuality, therefore that would be enough to turn me out of the church," Lowe said. "I am not -- positively not -- for either one." If indeed Chandler's pulpit statement was made before the November election and did not indicate he was speaking only for himself, it would be a "pretty clear" violation of Internal Revenue Service rules against political endorsements by churches, said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. That could lead the IRS to revoke East Waynesville Baptist Church's tax-exempt status. Ralph Neas, president of the People for the American Way Foundation, called the report about the church's actions "terribly sad." "What have we come to when the doors of a church are closed to longtime members because of their political beliefs, when a pastor equates political support for the 'wrong' candidate with a sin before God?" he asked in a statement. "Men and women of faith have every right to advocate for their political beliefs," Neas continued. "While churches, of course, can set their own membership standards, no one should punish people of faith for their political beliefs." A North Carolina congressman has introduced legislation that would lift restrictions on political speech in churches. The Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, introduced by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), is supported by many conservative Christian groups but opposed by supporters of church-state separation. Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee said the Waynesville church controversy "is why so many organizations are opposed to the Jones bill, because it would be so divisive -- our churches becoming 'red' churches and 'blue' churches and dividing along party lines," referring to the color designations used for political parties. Lowe said he and his wife have been invited to other churches since the May 2 meeting. He expects they'll start attending somewhere else but wouldn't rule out an effort to "retake" the church. Another church member, Selma Morris, said she believes the vote to remove the members isn't valid because the church bylaws weren't followed. The bylaws say a called meeting should be announced on Sunday morning. The meeting Monday was announced at the Sunday evening service, she said. The bylaws also say a called meeting should be held two weeks after the announcement, according to Morris. The meeting was held the next night. Morris said she wasn't at the meeting, but would have walked out with the others if she had been there. "I can't support that," she said.