LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — When Stella Harville brought her black boyfriend to her family's all-white church in rural Kentucky, she thought nothing of it. She and Ticha Chikuni worshipped there whenever they were in town, and he even sang before the congregation during one service.
Then in August, a member of Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church told Harville's father that Chikuni couldn't sing there anymore. And last Sunday, in a moment that seems from another time, church members voted 9-6 to bar mixed-race couples from joining the congregation.
The policy has drawn a firestorm of criticism in just a few days and sent church leaders scrambling to overturn it, which could happen as soon as Sunday. The executive secretary of the church's national organization said he has been inundated with angry phone calls, and had an inch-high stack of emails printed out on his desk.
"We are not a group of racist people," said Keith Burden of the National Association of Free Will Baptists. "We have been labeled that obviously because of the actions of nine people."
The resolution approved by the Gulnare church says it does not condone interracial marriage and "parties of such marriages will not be received as members, nor will they be used in worship services and other church functions, with the exception being funerals."
Voting on the resolution wasn't announced in church and ballots were cast after the service, attended by about 35 to 40 people.
The church member and former pastor who pushed for the vote, Melvin Thompson, he wouldn't tell The Associated Press why he did it.
"I am not racist. I will tell you that. I am not prejudiced against any race of people, have never in my lifetime spoke evil" about a race, Thompson said earlier this week in a brief interview. "That's what this is being portrayed as, but it is not."
Thompson stepped down as pastor earlier this year for health reasons, according to Harville's dad, Dean Harville. He said it was Thompson who told him that Chikuni couldn't sing at the church, a small, one-story red brick building with few windows and a white steeple.
After giving interviews earlier this week, the church's current pastor, Stacy Stepp, and several other church members did not return phone calls Friday. One of the members said they were shocked. Stepp said he voted against the measure and would work to overturn it.
The national group distanced itself from the resolution in a statement Thursday, saying it "neither condemns nor disallows" interracial marriage.
It said the church was working to reverse its policy and added, "We encourage the church to follow through with this action."
Harville, who is now engaged to Chikuni, said earlier this week that she felt betrayed by the church.
"Whether they keep the vote or overturn it, it's going to be hard for me go back there," she told AP.
Gulnare is a small town in Pike County, in eastern Kentucky. The county celebrates its Appalachian heritage in the spring with the Hillbilly Days Festival in downtown Pikeville, the county seat, and the Apple Blossom Festival in Elkhorn City, according to a tourism website.
Harville is working on her master's degree in optical engineering at an Indiana college. She met Chikuni, who is from Zimbabwe, at Georgetown College in central Kentucky.
"It's like we were kind of blindsided," Harville said.
More than 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down a Virginia statute barring whites from marrying nonwhites, overturning bans in 15 other states. But while interracial marriages have soared since then, many churches remain largely segregated.
Curtiss Paul DeYoung, a professor at Bethel College who has studied interracial churches, said church members opposed to a more diverse church usually just go somewhere else.
"Rarely today do you see it so blatantly come to a vote. Usually people just leave but they don't say much about it," DeYoung said. "I think this is still one of the last hurdles around race for a lot of folks in this country. It's just rarely stated this bluntly."
The Free Will Baptists trace their history to the 18th century. They emphasized the Arminian doctrine of free will, free grace, and free salvation, in contrast to most Baptists, who were Calvinists and believed Christ died only for those predestined to be saved.
There are some 4,200 churches worldwide. The National Association of Free Will Baptists organized in Nashville, Tenn., in 1935 and is now based in Antioch, Tenn.
The group said in its statement that the denomination has no official policy regarding interracial couples "because it has not been an issue."