updated 5/10/2005 8:42:32 PM ET 2005-05-11T00:42:32

A Baptist preacher accused of running out nine congregants who refused to support President Bush resigned Tuesday.

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“I am resigning with gratitude in my heart for all of you, particularly those of you who love me and my family,” the Rev. Chan Chandler said during a meeting at East Waynesville Baptist Church.

Congregants of the 100-member church in western North Carolina have said Chandler endorsed Bush from the pulpit during last year’s presidential campaign and said that anyone who planned to vote for Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry needed to “repent or resign.”

The church members said he continued to preach about politics after Bush won re-election, culminating with a church gathering last week in which the nine members said they were ousted.

Speaking from the pulpit Tuesday night, Chandler opened the meeting with prayer before telling the gathered congregation that, “For me to remain now would only cause more hurt for me and my family.”

Strong sentiments on abortion
Chandler made no mention of Bush or Kerry, saying only that the dispute was rooted in his strong feelings about abortion.

He then left with his wife and drove away from the church escorted by police. A few moments later, about 40 of his supporters — many in tears — came out of the church while other church members remained inside.

“I don’t believe he preached politics,” said Rhonda Trantham, one of Chandler’s supports. “I don’t believe anyone should tell a preacher not to preach what’s in the Bible.”

Chandler attorney John J. Pavey Jr. said the pastor has not apologized for anything he said and would continue to speak out against abortion. He said the dispute inside the church had nothing to do with politics, a contention seconded Tuesday by Chandler’s supporters.

“The only thing I wanna say is that everything that’s been in the press is a lie,” said Misty Turner. “I have never bowed down to Chan. I’ve only bowed down to the Lord.”

Asked if she would remain a member of East Waynesville, she said, “I’m not going to serve with the ungodly.”

IRS investigation urged
Chandler’s resignation came a day after a national group that lobbies for church-state separation urged the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the tax-exempt status of the East Waynesville Baptist Church.

IRS rules bar clear-cut politicking by tax-exempt groups. Last October, days before Bush won a second term, the IRS said it was investigating about 60 charities and other tax-exempt groups — about a third of them churches — for potentially breaking rules that bar them from participating in political activity.

The outcome of those investigations is not known. The IRS is barred from naming the organizations it investigates or announcing case results.

At Sunday’s service, the 33-year-old Chandler said the flap over the church members’ dismissal was “a great misunderstanding” and he tried to welcome them back.

“No one has ever been voted from the membership of this church due to an individual’s support or lack of support for a political party or candidate,” he said in a statement.

But the dismissed members, who attended the service with their lawyer and other supporters, said there was no misunderstanding and the only way to heal the rift is for Chandler to leave.

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