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Sunday, May 8, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

North Carolina church torn by pastor's partisan passion

The Associated Press

Enlarge this photoRICK HAVNER / AP

Heidi Jenkins and her husband, Dan, talk about the controversy at the East Waynesville Baptist Church in Waynesville, N.C. Congregants say Pastor Chan Chandler led an effort to kick out congregants who didn't support President Bush.

WAYNESVILLE, N.C. — A pastor who led a charge to kick out nine church members who refused to support President Bush was the talk of the town yesterday, with ousted congregants considering hiring a lawyer.

Pastor Chan Chandler greeted people at the door of tiny East Waynesville Baptist Church last night as the church choir practiced and even welcomed them to attend services this morning — if there's room. But he was not prepared to talk about his mixing of religion and politics.

"On the advice of counsel, I've been advised not to have any comment at this time," Chandler said. "We will have a statement later."

Members of the congregation said Chandler told them during last year's presidential campaign that anyone who planned to vote for Democratic nominee John Kerry needed to leave the church.

Longtime member Selma Morris, who was treasurer at the church, said Chandler's sermons remained political after Bush won re-election. His comments turned to politics last week at a church gathering that ended with nine members voted out.

Morris said yesterday that some of the ousted members planned to meet with an attorney tomorrow to discuss their options. "We're hoping he [the attorney] will make him leave so that the church members can come back," she said.

"This is very disturbing," said Pastor Robert Prince III, who leads the congregation at First Baptist Church. "I've been a pastor for more than 25 years, and I have never seen church members voted out for something like this."

The 100-member East Waynesville Baptist Church sits on a bluff a short distance from downtown Waynesville, a mountain town of about 9,200 northwest of Charlotte. A white steeple and stained-glass windows adorn the simple brick structure, built in 1965.

In the days since the nine members were ousted, many more members reportedly have left the church in protest.

"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," Isaac Sutton told The News and Observer of Raleigh. "I think I deserve the right to vote for who I want to."

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Sutton, a deacon who worshipped at East Waynesville Baptist Church for 12 years, said he and his wife were among the nine voted out.

"I've been going to this church for 25 years, and I've never had a problem," Sutton's wife, Lorene, said Friday. "He's young, and he thinks he knows everything."

Other former church members declined to speak, citing the advice of their attorney.

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