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Limits of pulpit politics tested in N.C.

First, the pastor told Democrats to leave the church. Now he has left, leaving simmering debate in his wake.

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When Pastor Chan Chandler proclaimed a few weeks before last November's election that East Waynesville Baptist Church would become a political church, parishioner Ann Stokley says her "jaw dropped to the floor."

That the young pastor would call John Kerry supporters out as unfit Christians may not have been that surprising during a heated election in this county of some 60 Southern Baptist steeples nestled in the Appalachians.

But Tuesday night, six months after the election - and a week after nine members claim they were kicked out of the church for refusing to vote Republican - Mr. Chandler, a Haywood County native, resigned Tuesday night under pressure from both outside and inside the chapel. A number of his supporters left with him.

"We're there to learn and worship, not worship Bush," says Ms. Stokley, a registered Democrat. "I just couldn't believe what I was hearing coming from the Lord's podium."

If the rupture of this congregation was an extreme event for a church, it is also part of a simmering debate nationwide about how politicized the pulpit should be. Even in an era of intense partisan divides, the reaction of parishioners here suggests that even in the heart of "red-state" America, many want to see some boundary drawn between the demands of their faith and their ballot-box choices.

"This case actually illustrates that Christians are not ignorant citizens being led around by the nose," says Matthew Staver, an attorney with the Liberty Counsel in Florida, which promotes free speech for clergy. "The people in the pew are thinking for themselves."

Up until his calls for Democrats to depart, Ms. Stokley gave Pastor Chandler the benefit of the doubt. Still, his words troubled her deeply enough that she avoided him outside the sanctuary. "The pastor stands on the front step after the service, but you can always go out the side door," she says.

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