Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Politics Prompt Church Tax Questions


Politics Prompt Church Tax Questions

Associated Press Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- The Internal Revenue Service should reconsider the tax-exempt status of a Baptist church where nine members say they were expelled in a political dispute with their pastor, an advocacy group said Monday.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sent a letter to the IRS in response to reports that the Rev. Chan Chandler led an effort to expel members of East Waynesville Baptist Church in western North Carolina because they did not support President Bush.

"The IRS cannot afford to ignore such blatant disregard for our nation's tax laws, as it sends a signal to others religious leaders that they too can engage in partisan politicking from the pulpit without fear of sanction," Lynn wrote.

Lynn's group released the letter one day before a planned church meeting between Chandler and the members who say they were kicked out.

Congregants have said Chandler endorsed Bush from the pulpit during last year's presidential campaign and announced that anyone who planned to vote for Democratic nominee John Kerry needed to "repent or resign."

He continued to preach about politics after Bush won re-election, culminating with a church gathering last week in which the nine members said they were ousted.

Chandler's attorney, John Pavey Jr., said he did not know what would be discussed at Tuesday's meeting, which he said would be open only to members of the congregation.

"I think there was some confusion about last (week's) meeting, as to the validity of the vote. I think they're going to clarify all that," Pavey said.

Pavey declined to comment on Lynn's letter seeking an investigation of the church's IRS status.

On Sunday, Pavey read a statement from Chandler in which the pastor said no members had been ousted for their political views and that the church was open to all "who embrace the authority and application of the Bible regardless of political affiliation."

David Wijewickrama, a lawyer who represents the nine members, said his clients contend that Chandler's statement was "grossly inaccurate." Still, Wijewickrama said the members plans to attend Tuesday's meeting and "are cautiously optimistic they will start taking steps toward resolving this conflict."

About 70 congregants - and about a dozen reporters - attended Sunday's services at the church in the mountain town of Waynesville, about 125 miles northwest of Charlotte.

Chandler, who has been at the church less than three years, called the political flap a "great misunderstanding." But some of those voted out of the congregation said the rift will only be healed if Chandler leaves.