December 5th, 2011
02:01 PM ET

Church reverses ban on interracial marriages

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Two weeks ago, Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in Pike County, Kentucky, voted 9-6 to ban couples in interracial marriages from attending or participating in the church.

But on Sunday, the small church reversed its course.

Pastor Stacy Stepp told CNN affiliate WLEX on Sunday that the church voted unanimously to "accept all people regardless of race, creed, or color and to accept everyone into the fellowship of Christ."

"I tried everything in my power to try to resolve the matter before it got to where it did," Stepp told WLEX.

The problem began in June when Stella Harville, who grew up going to the church, brought her fiance, Ticha Chikuni, who is black, to the small church, where on average about 40 people meet for Sunday worship.

Harville, who goes by the nickname Susie, played the piano, and Chikuni sang a song during the service.

Her father, Dean Harville, a decades-long member of the church, told CNN affiliate WSAZ he was counting the offering when the pastor at the time, Melvin Thompson, came up to him and said, "Susie and her boyfriend are not allowed to sing in this church anymore."

"He said, 'Furthermore, Susie can take her fella back where she found him from,'" Harville said.

Engaged couple Stella Harville and Ticha Chikuni

That led to the vote on November 27 on a church policy banning interracial couples from attending or participating in services.

"It's racist, that's all you can call it," Harville told WSAZ. "I treat him like he's my own son. You won't find a nicer person," he said about his daughter's fiance, who is originally from Zimbabwe.

Chikuni told CNN affiliate WLEX, "For someone who, like Stella, has been going to that church for all her life, expecting some support from them. But you know, everyone just fell off the bandwagon and passed a really hard judgment on her and on us and the family too."

Stella Harville told CNN's Erin Burnett on Friday, before the church reversed the policy, "I still don't know how to process all this."

Harville grew up in the church but left Pike County to attend college. She told CNN she had known all nine church members who voted to ban interracial couples "since I was a little kid."

The ban led to a massive controversy.

The National Association of Free Will Baptists in Tennessee released a lengthy statement condemning the church policy.

"The National Association of Free Will Baptists does not have an official policy regarding interracial couples because it has not been an issue in the denomination. The Free Will Baptist Treatise neither condemns nor disallows marriage between a man and woman of different races," the statement read in part.

"Free Will Baptists have historically championed the rights and dignity of all people, regardless of race," it continued. It said that national and state officials from the denomination were working with the local church to overturn the policy.

On Saturday, the Sandy Valley Conference of Free Will Baptists, the regional body of the denomination, released a statement saying the church policy was "Null and Void," because the vote was not held in accordance with proper parliamentary procedure.

"Furthermore, Pastor Stepp has advised the conference that he and his church will hold a vote of solidarity for the purpose of welcoming believers into their fellowship regardless of race, creed or color. The Sandy Valley Conference will continue to work with the Gulnare Church to rebuild what has been damaged by this tragic error," the statement continued.

“We will be working with the church if they accept our help,” Keith Burden, the executive secretary of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, told CNN on Monday.

Burden said churches within the denomination govern themselves autonomously and the national denomination cannot impose rules or sanctions on the church, but can only remove a church from the national group.

Burden said he spoke with Stepp before the vote on Sunday and told him the denomination would provide educational materials to “better equip their leaders.” He also encouraged Stepp to take the corrective measures that the church eventually did, with the new vote on Sunday.

“We are genuinely sorrowful and repentant for what happened,” Burden said. “We hope to continue to work to try to prevent this from ever happening again.”

The young couple at the center of all this had not planned to get married at the church, but this incident settled any doubt on the matter, Stella Harville told CNN.

As far as whether she and her fiance would ever return to the church, she said, "I won't say never, but it's going to take a while."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Baptist • Belief • Christianity • Church • Kentucky • United States

soundoff (613 Responses)
  1. Dave Harris

    It's probably safe to assume that the 'good' people of this Baptist church haven't become any less racist. They just got caught being honest. Won't happen again.

    December 6, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  2. mfx3

    In return, I shall reverse my bad on attending church. See, neither of our bans amounted to much importance.

    December 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • mfx3

      bad = ban

      December 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Sampsonite


      December 6, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  3. Erik

    As Voltaire said, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." This is your brain on religion.

    December 6, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • captain america

      Wasn't Voltaire a frog? Why would you let some lame "frenchie" tell you how to think?

      December 6, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Erik

      Being French is no impediment to being able to think clearly. As for "telling me what to think," that simply isn't the case. He just said it more eloquently than I ever could. And to criticize someone for their nationality is no better than to do so based on race.
      Lastly, as far as I know, he had no physical disabilities, and showed no symptoms of lameness.

      December 6, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Sinless

      lol, pwnt!

      December 6, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Ferme ta bouche xenophobique, Capitaine.
      Ramper encore sous ton pont.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • captain america

      canadians rate way lower than the french on the world scale doc and you rate way low on the canadian scale because you just can't keep your nose out of other peoples business.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • captain america

      Hey erik how does dead french butt taste when kissed?

      December 6, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Erik

      Actually, a lot of Canadians ARE French. And bigotry, either yours or this church's, is everyone's business.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  4. ART

    What a stupid bigotted red neck church this must be,they should definately not be tax exemt. This is just ignorant people from an ignorant church ,if you can call it a church..

    December 6, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Mandie

      *POOT* <-right in your black face.

      December 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • mfx3

      Religion and churches are supposed to be about enriching lives and making people happier, not about denying happiness and making people's lives miserable.

      December 6, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  5. Joseph njuguna

    It is very wrong for the church of christ to discriminate people on the basis of their race, origin, colour or class. God is love and all should love on another as God Himself loves us

    December 6, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Igor

      Which god are you talking about? The one that loved humanity so much as to almost wipe it out a few times, who reveled in cruel in unusual punishment, who tortured a poor man deviouted to it on a dare, etc. I think one would feel more love in an S&M cage than in heaven with that thing. Certainly the members of this church were just as much convince of god's love, yet look how far their undying devotion and love preaching got them. An idea which is so easily exploited for dark purposes can't have much independent merit.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Mike

      They should have a like button on here. Good response.

      December 6, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • really?

      Igor – if you would read the Bible before you blast it then you would get it. The people God destoryed were not doing his will. And of all He has the right to say how he wants to be worshipped. It is not man's right to say how to worship God. so say the people that were destroyed were the sickest, on earth at the time, meanest, etc....lets just sum it up to say good was not found in them at all you really need to read why this was done not just What was done.

      December 6, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      " The people God destoryed were not doing his will. "
      So everyone on the whole planet, apart from one family, were nasty evil vile people, including apparently children and babies, and deserved to be killed.
      way to excuse slaughter there.

      god in the ot is a nasty evil spiteful egotistical megolomaniac. claiming that he has the right to do it doesnt excuse such acts and spits in the face of a so called loving merciful god.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Igor

      "Igor – if you would read the Bible before you blast it then you would get it."

      It's funny how those who likely dwell in ignorance automatically accuse others of the same thing, all the while unable or unwilling to actually address the merits of what was said. Religion fascinates me, and since i was raised in a household where Torah reading became a daily thing, I find it amusing that you accuse me of not reading or not understanding the bible, But of course became fascinated with the stories and their cultural significance, so I got my hands on a Gideon bible, which the missionaries managed to bring to my Soviet run school and distribute to us. Eventually I got a copy of of the Mormon Bible and even read through most of Koran. So believe me, I am being fair when i say, they all have equal merit in my eyes.

      But back your rationalization of atrocities comitted by the all knowing and llpowerful, who tortured and destroyed because.....they weren't doing his will? Ohhhh, ok, clearly disobeying justifies murder and torture. Wait, were they all disobeying his will? Well Job seemed to bend backwards to please, too bad god had something to proove to satan. And let's not forget about the great deluge. Only a mind as warped by religious justification as yours can find no fault by exterminating 99.9 percent of the world population for perceived acts of wickedness. Everyone? No infants, no children? Were they evil too? Did the Egyptian 1st born disobey his will by suckling too hard on their mother's milk?

      If your god actually existed, then it would be an evil force to rise against, not placate with unquestioned following. That you think some of these actions are somehow defensible shows how dangerous absolute faith can be, where you ignore obvious malicious acts so as not to shake your faith.

      December 6, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  6. teepee


    December 6, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • 11


      December 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  7. Rick Banet

    Well there Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church. Welcome to the 80's.

    December 6, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  8. mike

    Love God, not religion

    December 6, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • tony

      Well said, Mike.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Half right anyway

      December 6, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  9. Donkey Hotay

    Typical "christians"

    December 6, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  10. jody

    I'm sad to say we do have these people in Kentucky–and yes, they are everywhere in this country. So don't judge all Kentuckians by these backward folk. I would bet every penny I have that they are staunch Republicans–and can't tell you why.

    December 6, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Ethernet

      I bet everyone of them are democrats.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • jjsf12

      I would only bet they are fools. All Democrats are fools, but not all fools are Democrats, so I'm not ready to guess the political party of those particular fools.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • TokenRing

      Repubs for sure.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Seenitb4

      Definitely Republitards!

      December 6, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Ethernet

      Proven fact. Demotards are the most intolerant of them all. If you don't believe the way they do, they throw a conniption fit.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • Look

      Sounds like Republicans to me all the way. They are the party of evil if ever there was one.

      December 6, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  11. Big B

    Well, I guess that is nine votes Obama can't count on...Ha Ha

    December 6, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Alphabet Soup

      I doubt he would want their votes anyway.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  12. Primewonk

    Before anyone thinks that just because these bigots changed their minds, that all is now well –

    In a poll from this past April, almost half of all republicans in Mississippi said that interracial marriage should be illegal.

    Amazing. Simply amazing. It's 2011 people.

    I wonder what the results would be in Alabama, or Georgia, or Tennessee, or any red state?

    December 6, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • Mandie

      That is insane! I can't understand why people are so hung up on color. Character has no chance in this world. Color is such a small small thing about a person. Doesn't make you a great person just cause your one color.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  13. Tex71

    There is only one human race. We are all different shades of the same color. We are all distantly related (more so if you believe in evolution, less so if you are a Creationist), so even the most ignorant yokel should understand that the closer your appearance matches that of your spouse, the closer you are to inbreeding. I say "should understand" because there are obviously exceptions like "pastor" (!) Melvin who sounds like a good ole snake-handlin' flat-earther and who probably fakes epileptic seizures to look "spiritual" and preaches that women should wear skirts and keep their mouths shut.

    December 6, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  14. George Jetson

    Well, you know, Jesus never dated a black woman. So there's your religious justification right there. It's in the bible, right?

    December 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Notaliberal

      no because jesus was middle eastern. Hi ho!!! 😀
      The bible never mentions race idiot

      December 6, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • teepee


      December 6, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Seenitb4

      The "chosen people" aren't a race? How so?

      December 6, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  15. Brendan Stewart

    Wow, i didn't know that had Cnn.com back in 1956. Cool!

    December 6, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Brendan Stewart

      Is this article really from 2011? Really?

      December 6, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Igor

      I bet you can make it even further if you walk through the time machine that is the Free Will Baptist Church. I suppose the free will part is that these people had enough free will to disregard societal condemnation of bigotry. If there is a god, then it gave us free will so we'd all choose to follow blindly.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Sadly Brendan, it is from now.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  16. Jennifer

    ""accept all people regardless of race, creed, or color and to accept everyone into the fellowship of Christ."" -except the gays

    December 6, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Keefster

      Come own now. That there's differnt. Ain't it? "God hate's (fill in the blank)." Thet there's in the Bobble, ain't it?

      December 6, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  17. Alfred E Neuman

    Will this story be given new life with a reverse ,reverse ban ? Inquiring minds want to know.

    December 6, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Nonimus

      more likely just a ban on reverse bans

      December 6, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  18. jonathan

    What it all comes down too is that people are people. Skin color, religion, nor culture changes that. Unfortunately not everyone is either able or willing to see it that way.

    December 6, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Igor

      Actually I agreee, although you have to admit that dogma goes a long way to sway some fragile minds. That's really the point I usually try to make. Human morality is cultural, and has little to do with whether one is a devout religious person or atheist/agnostic. In fact, the reason most people in the civilized world don't start kiling stealing and ra*ping is due to changing cultural norms and the overall societal benefit from following them.

      What I do find bothersome quite frequently, is that absolute certainty of some devotees can shut off that moral center. And then one is doing atrocious thngs while believing in some divine benevolent mandate. Dogma is dangerous no matter the source. If one becomes an atheist (or remains I suppose) because they keep on reading the same book over and over again and telling others they will be punished for not sharing in that belief, that is just as bad as religious fanaticism. In fact, it becomes one.

      December 6, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • PeteDO

      I'm looking forward to the day when we can screen people by their neuro-psychological tendencies towards overly-obsessive behavior and frontal-lobe limitations. That would clear a lot of things up in this world virtually overnight.

      December 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  19. QT

    I feel like if he did all he could before it got to this point, then it wouldn't have gotten to this point at all.

    December 6, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  20. ab

    I can't believe they actually thought something like that was going to fly in this day and age in the first place! Idiots. It's 2011, not 1950. It wasn't ok then, and it's not ok now.

    December 6, 2011 at 11:32 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.