Pike pastor to declare vote on interracial couples null and void

The pastor of a Pike County church that voted to exclude interracial couples from membership said he plans to take the advice of a church conference and declare the vote null and void in a meeting after services Sunday.

"As far as I'm concerned and the church is concerned, this case will be closed as of tomorrow," Stacy Stepp, pastor of the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church, said Saturday. "We will ... get back on the right track and continue to win souls for the Lord."

Stepp had approached the Sandy Valley Conference of Free Will Baptists, which consists of 13 Pike County churches, with a request for help after the church ignited a firestorm of criticism by voting 9-6 last Sunday to approve a statement saying it didn't condone interracial marriage.

The statement said that while everyone was welcome to attend, interracial couples would not be received as members or used in worship services.

Stepp said he opposed the statement.

The Sandy Valley Conference met Saturday and issued 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.

The conference's parliamentary committee said the measure to exclude interracial couples would require a change in the church bylaws. Under Robert's Rules, such a change would require a vote of the majority of the entire membership, or a vote of two-thirds of those voting, the committee concluded.

Since the church has about 44 members, a simple majority would require 23 "yes" votes for the motion to pass; two-thirds of those voting would have been 10 "yes" votes.

"There wasn't enough support in that tiny church for what they did," said Jim Patton, a representative of the conference and pastor of the Pikeville Free Will Baptist Church. "This is not any longer a part of their church. It is null and void."

In its public statement, the conference said that it "will continue to work with the Gulnare church to rebuild what has been damaged by this tragic error."

"We the churches of the Sandy Valley Conference strongly denounce prejudice, racism and all ungodly forms of conduct, whether within the church or without," the statement said.

Dean Harville, a longtime member and church clerk, said a former pastor who attends the church, Melvin Thompson, proposed that the church make a statement against interracial marriage after Harville's daughter, Stella, brought her fiancé to a worship service last summer and the two performed a song.

Stella Harville is white; her fiancé is black.

Thompson previously declined to discuss the issue with the Herald-Leader, but he told the Associated Press last week that he is not prejudiced.

Patton said Saturday that Thompson has "repented" and would not bring the issue up again. "He is devastated. He is broken-hearted," Patton said. "He is a good man."

Stella Harville, who is pursuing a graduate degree in optical engineering at a college in Indiana, said she hopes the church follows through with a reversal of its previous vote.

"Let's just hope that the members have gotten the message — overturn it," she said. "But I'm not going to hold my breath."

Stepp said that on Sunday, the church will likely take an informal vote "for the unity of the church" stating that all people are welcome, regardless of race.

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