A North Carolina Baptist pastor who reportedly led efforts to remove the names of nine members from the church roll because they didn’t support President Bush’s re-election on Sunday called it a “great misunderstanding” that should “be cleared up by the end of the week.”

“No one has ever been voted from the membership of this church due to an individual’s support or lack of support for a political party or candidate,” Chan Chandler, pastor of East Waynesville Baptist Church, said in a statement.

But some of the nine members who claimed they were voted out of the church last week and their supporters said the 33-year-old pastor didn’t go far enough.

Lewis Inman, who told Asheville ABC affiliate News 13 he has been attending the church between 25 and 30 years, said Chandler could have made everything right from the pulpit, “but I don’t think he’s man enough to apologize.”

Thelma Lowe, another longtime member and among the nine voted from membership, said, “Things will never be the same until he leaves,” according to the Washington Post.

According to reports, Chandler preached a six-part sermon series on politics leading into the election last fall, telling the congregation that anyone supporting John Kerry for president should repent or resign from the church.

On May 1, Chandler preached two more political messages, one Sunday morning and one Sunday night, and invited the entire congregation to a called deacon’s meeting for the following night.

In an interview on a Weblog at DailyKos.com, Inman said Chandler had about 40 people with him—12 adults and the rest teenagers. Most had become involved in the church within the last year and said they were going to vote out anyone who voted for Kerry.

Since they needed a two-thirds majority, Inman said he figured they thought they had enough votes to do it. He said nine people left the meeting before a vote could be held. After they walked out, the remaining members voted to dismiss those who left, including three deacons.

“Monday night was a lynching,” said Inman, a 60-year-old Democrat, Vietnam veteran and among 1,000 workers who lost jobs in 1998 when Dayco Products, a hose and belt manufactuer, closed its Waynesville plant, due in part to a labor dispute.

The vote may not be legal, however. Church bylaws require that called business meetings be announced from the pulpit at least two weeks in advance.

The dispute brought international attention to the 400-member church in western North Carolina near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Washington Post carried stories. It was also reported in Great Britain the London Free Press News and on the Irish satire site Blather.net.

Chandler topped DemocraticUnderground.com’s 197th list of “Top Ten Conservative Idiots.” The story also earned mention on the parody site LandoverBaptist.net and MichaelMoore.com.

Chandler has said little about the controversy, telling WLOS-TV “the actions were not politically motivated” and the Associated Press he had “been advised not to have any comment at this time.”

According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, Chandler spoke directly to the nine members, who came with their attorney and about 40 supporters.

“I’m glad you’re here today. I can honestly say that,” he said. “We’re here to worship. I hope that’s what you’re here for.”

His only other reference to the controversy was, “If you’d been in the situation that I have this week you would want God to be with you,” reported WLOS, Asheville ABC affiliate News 13.

Later Chandler released a statement through his attorney:

“The goal of East Waynesville Baptist Church is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world.

“This church fellowships openly with all who embrace the authority and application of the Bible regardless of political affiliation, including current members who align themselves with both major political parties, as well as those who affiliate with no political party.

“No one has ever been voted from the membership of this church due to an individual’s support or lack of support for a political party or candidate.

“All matters of the church are internal in nature and are resolved accordingly.”

Former members, however, said Sunday’s sermon is the first since October that hasn’t been about politics.

“Our memberships were terminated because we did not agree to have a political church,” said Thelma Lowe, the lone Republican voted out. “I did not vote for Kerry.”

Fellow ministers and political leaders joined in criticizing the church’s action. “This is very disturbing,” Robert Prince, pastor of First Baptist Church in Waynesville, told the Associated Press.  “I’ve been a pastor for more than 25 years and I have never seen church members voted out for something like this.”

Jim Royston, executive director of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, said  a pastor requiring his members to agree in writing with his political viewpoint would be “highly irregular” if true as reported.

Jerry Meek, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, accused Chandler of “acting extremely inappropriately by injecting partisan politics into a house of worship” and of potentially by breaking the law and threatening the church’s tax-exempt status.

Currently IRS rules forbid churches and other non-profit organizations from engaging in partisan politics. That could change, however, if North Carolina Representative Walter Jones succeeds in getting his Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act through Congress.

The bill, introduced in 2003, would amend the Internal Revenue Code to state that “churches and other houses of worship shall not lose such [tax-exempt] designation because of the content, preparation or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.”

Conservative religious groups like the Christian Coalition, Traditional Values Coalition and Concerned Women for America are lobbying strongly for the bill.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission initially supported it, but recently removed endorsement saying efforts to water down the legislation nullify the original intent.

“We supported the original Jones bill because, while we believe that churches shouldn’t endorse candidates, we also believe that it should be a church decision, not a government decision,” ERLC head Richard Land said in Baptist Press.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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