The pastor at a small Kentucky church says he has nullified a vote by parishioners that banned interracial couples from the church.
"As far as I'm concerned and the church is concerned, this case will be closed as of tomorrow," Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church pastor Stacy Stepp said Saturday, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. "We will ... get back on the right track and continue to win souls for the Lord."
Stepp, who said he opposed the vote, declared it null and void after approaching the Sandy Valley Conference of Free Will Baptists, which consists of 13 Pike County churches.
The conference met Saturday and released a statement saying it had reviewed the situation and concluded that the vote was of no effect because it "was not carried out in accordance with" Robert's Rules of Order, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, and would therefore require a change in the church bylaws.
The Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church voted 9 to 6 on Nov. 27 to ban interracial couples from church services or functions, with the exception of funerals.
Stella Harville, 24, and her fiance Ticha Chikuni, 28, are the couple that prompted the church's actions. Harville is white and Chikuni is black. The couple met at Georgetown College in Kentucky, where both were students, and they plan to marry in July 2012.
Harville is in graduate school in Indiana and Chikuni is working at Georgetown College, but when the couple visits Harville's parents in Pike County, Ky., they usually go to church with her parents.
Harville's parents Cathy and Dean Harville have been church members for decades. Cathy Harville has taught Sunday school at the church and Dean Harville was a deacon there and is currently the church's secretary. They consider the church's 42 congregants their family.
But after a service in June where Stella Harville and Chikuni participated by singing and playing the piano for a hymn, the family was shocked when then-pastor Melvin Thompson approached them after the service.
Interracial Couple Prompts Church Ban
"There seemed to not be a problem and then all of a sudden the pastor at the time came up to [Chikuni] and told him he could not sing anymore," Harville said. "That floored us. We wanted to know why."
The next week, Cathy and Dean Harville met with Thompson and were shocked to hear their pastor say that members of the congregation had said they would walk out if Chikuni sang again. The parents wanted to know exactly who had a problem with their future son-in-law.
"'Me, for one,'" Cathy Harville said that Thompson replied. She said he added, "'The best thing [Stella] can do is take him back where she found him.'"
She said the pastor would not tell her any names of other people who took issue with Chikuni.
Cathy Harville was taken aback.
"There's no love at all in that and that really hurt me," she said. "They are both Christians and they both try to live a Christian life and serve God. There is nothing in the Bible that we found that tells us that the couple should not be married."
Thompson could not be reached for comment.
Thompson has since been replaced with a new pastor who said that everyone was welcome at the church and the Harville family said the issue was dropped, but at a recent meeting Thompson, who is still a member of the congregation, brought up the issue again and asked that it be discussed at a business meeting among the church's men.
"Grown men cried at that meeting," Cathy Harville said. Three men voted to bring the issue before the church for a vote, and two voted against it, so the matter went before the congregation this past Sunday.
Harville said that of 42 members, very few stayed for the meeting after church and even fewer voted. She said most congregants wanted no part of the vote.
The motion read, in part: "The Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church does not condone interracial marriage. Parties of such marriages will not be received as members, nor will they be used in worship services and other church functions, with the exception being funerals."
And: "The recommendation is not intended to judge the salvation of anyone, but indicated to promote greater unity among the church body and the community we serve."
Church Torn by Ban on Interracial Couples
Ultimately, nine people voted for the motion and six voted against it and interracial couples were banned.
"It hurt," Harville said. "[Stella] knew she was going to face some challenges after she decided she would marry Ticha, but I didn't think it would be from our family."
Stella Harville and Chikuni did not respond to requests for comment.
Other churches in the community have condemned the decision.
Randy Johnson, president of the Pike County/Pikeville Area Ministerial Association, which includes about 60 churches, said many people already have "stigmas" and "stereotypes" that they associate with Appalachia and that this decision does not accurately represent the vast majority of the community.
"This really is an anomaly. This is not in any way, shape or form the sentiment of any other local churches or church leaders," Johnson said. "It really has saddened many people. It goes against almost everyone else's philosophy and theology of what it means to be a church."