LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A tiny all-white Appalachian church in rural Kentucky has voted to ban interracial couples from joining its flock, pitting members against each other in an argument over race.
Members at the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church voted Sunday on the resolution, which says the church "does not condone interracial marriage."
The church member who crafted the resolution, Melvin Thompson, said he is not racist and called the matter an "internal affair."
"I am not racist. I will tell you that. I am not prejudiced against any race of people, have never in my lifetime spoke evil" about a race, said Thompson, the church's former pastor who stepped down earlier this year. "That's what this is being portrayed as, but it is not."
Church secretary Dean Harville disagrees: He says the resolution came after his daughter visited the church this summer with her boyfriend from Africa.
Stella Harville and Ticha Chikuni – now her fiance – visited the church in June and Chikuni sang a song for the congregation. The two had visited the church before.
Dean Harville, the church's secretary, said he was counting the church offering after a service in early August when he was approached by Thompson, who told him Harville's daughter and her boyfriend were no longer allowed to sing at the church.
"If he's not racist, what is this?" Harville said of Thompson.
The vote by members last Sunday was 9-6, Harville said. It was taken after the service, which about 35 to 40 people attended. Harville said many people left or declined to vote.
The resolution says anyone is welcome to attend services, but interracial couples could not become members or be "used in worship services or other church functions."
Stella Harville, a 24-year-old graduate student at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, called the vote "hurtful."
"I think part of me is still in shock and trying to process what's been going on the past few days," she said. "I really hope they overturn this."
The church's pastor, Stacy Stepp, said Wednesday that he was against the resolution. Stepp said the denomination's regional conference will begin working on resolving the issue this weekend.
The National Association of Free Will Baptists in Antioch, Tenn., has no official position on interracial marriage for its 2,400 churches worldwide, executive secretary Keith Burden said. The denomination believes in the Bible is inerrant and local churches have autonomy over decision-making.
"It's been a non-issue with us," Burden said, adding that many interracial couples attend Free Will Baptist churches. He said the Pike County church acted on its own. Burden said the association can move to strip the local church of its affiliation with the national denomination if it's not resolved.
"Hopefully it is corrected quickly," Burden said.
The church's vote on interracial marriage was first reported this week by East Kentucky Broadcasting, a network of local radio stations in the region.
Stella Harville met Chikuni at Georgetown College, where he is a student advisor. Dean Harville said Chikuni's parents live in southern Africa, and he has not seen them in over a decade.