US church bans interracial couples
A US church has been plunged into a racism row after it banned interracial couples from joining its congregation.
Members at Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church, in Kentucky, have voted to prevent interracial couples from becoming members or taking part in any services other than funerals.
The ban has opened a war of words between worshippers in the Pike County community and provoked accusations of discrimination.
It was imposed after Stella Harville, the church secretary’s daughter, attended a service with her black fiancé Ticha Chikuni.
Miss Harville, 24, accompanied Mr Chikuni, 29, on the piano as he sang the hymn I Surrender All at the service in June.
Her father Dean Harville accused Melvin Thompson, the church’s former pastor who crafted the resolution, of racism.
"Thompson told me that Stella and her boyfriend were not allowed to sing in the church any more," said Mr Harville.
"If he's not racist, what is this?”
He added that the ban was a “black eye to the church, a black eye to our community and a black eye to God”.
“The way I look at it, it's a slap in God's face to say something like this," he said.
The resolution, passed by members after a 9-6 vote in favour, states that the church "does not condone interracial marriage”.
It adds that anyone is welcome to attend services, but interracial couples could not be "received as members, nor will they be used in worship services and other church functions – with the exception being funerals".
The move "was not intended to judge the salvation of anyone, but is intended to promote greater unity among the church body and the community we serve", Mr Thompson’s motion said.
Around 25 parishioners abstained from voting in the ballot on Sunday by leaving the church.
Mr Thompson, who stepped down as pastor earlier this year citing health problems, denied that the ban was motivated by racism.
"I am not racist. I will tell you that,” he said.
“I am not prejudiced against any race of people, have never in my lifetime spoken evil about a race. That’s what this is being portrayed as, but it is not."
He later told a local radio station: “I do not believe in interracial marriages, and I do not believe this will give our church a black eye at all."
Zimbabwean Mr Chikuni has lived in the US for 11 years, having come to Kentucky to study, and now works as a student adviser at Georgetown College.
Miss Harville, who is studying for a master's degree in Indiana, said she was “deeply hurt” as she has attended the church since childhood and knows those who voted for the ban personally.
The church's pastor, Stacy Stepp, has opposed the ban and said the denomination's regional conference will begin working on resolving the issue this weekend.
Interracial marriage was only been legal in all US states since 1967.
Opposition to interracial marriages has fallen with every generation, with up to 97 per cent of younger Americans now having no issue with it, polls have indicated, although pockets of resistance still exists in some states