Does this story deserve the attention it has received in the national media - including the evening news of the major networks? Probably not. It's one pastor and one congregation. Still, it gives some insights into polity in the Southern Baptist convention.
Frank Lowe said he had been a member of the church for 43 years. He said the pastor, Chan Chandler, said he wanted the church to be a politically active church, and that anyone who disagrees with his views should leave.
The controversy at the church reached a high point the night of May 2, when the pastor invited all church members to a deacons' meeting. Lowe said at the beginning of the meeting, the pastor said anyone who didn't agree with his political views should leave.
Lowe said he, his wife, Thelma and seven others left. The pastor then called the church into conference and congregation voted to terminate the membership of those who left, Lowe said. Among those dismissed were three deacons, he said.
Church member Bill Rash, who has been attending the church for about 29 years, said he stayed through the meeting, but has since resigned from his positions and decided to leave the church. He said another church member initially asked if all church members could come to the altar, pray together, forgive each other and get on with the Lord's business.
Chandler responded by saying if those who disagreed with him would repent, then they could get on with the Lord's work, Rash said. The pastor said if they weren't going to repent they should leave, Rash said. That's when Lowe and the others left.
After they left, the remaining members voted to take their names off the roll, Rash said everyone voted for the measure except he and his wife, who didn't vote.
The remaining members agreed that if another church wrote for the letters of those who left, East Waynesville would reply saying they had left in bad standing.
During the last presidential election, the pastor said that anyone who was supporting John Kerry should repent or resign from the church, Rash and Lowe said. The pastor offered to hold the door for them to leave, Lowe said. Lowe said he usually votes Democratic while his wife votes Republican.
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 (BJC). That could lead the IRS to revoke East Waynesville Baptist Church's tax-exempt status.
Some members of Congress have been trying to do away with that restriction, led by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.). He has introduced a version of the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act in every session of Congress since 2001. Although the bill has not passed, it continues to receive strong support from many conservative Christian groups. Many groups that support the separation of church and state have strongly opposed the bill, including the BJC.
Baptist State Convention (BSC) Executive Director-treasurer Jim Royston issued a statement saying that Chandler's requirement that church members agree with his personal political viewpoint would be "highly irregular" if it is true.
East Waynesville is a cooperating member of the BSC by contributing financially to the BSC's state, national and international missions efforts, the statement said. As with any member of the BSC, churches are autonomous and decisions they make are neither directed by, nor directive to the Baptist State Convention.
Royston said he has not spoken with Chandler about the issue and hesitated to make any statements with implications wider than the issue in the local church. He did say that such a position as the one Chandler is reported to have taken could threaten a church's tax exempt status because it could be interpreted as stepping into political advocacy, an action prohibited by IRS rules.