Pender Case On Appeal

Church keeps up tax fight

Morning Star/December 28, 2000

Roky Point - Almost a year into the tax dispute between Pender County and the Church of Yahshua the Christ at Wilmington, Deacon Barry Harris says he wishes the government would just leave his congregation alone.

In March, Pender County refused to grant tax-exempt status on 50 acres the church owns near Rocky Point because there is no church building on the property. Mr. Harris appealed and lost before the county Board of Equalization and Review in May. But Mr. Harris says his congregation - which meets in members' homes - is the object of discrimination by a county hostile to their practices and beliefs. He said while the church uses a firing range on the property and holds sacred outdoor rituals there, members believe Scripture mandates that worship services be held in private homes.

He also has pointed out what he considers hypocrisy in the state statute, which would allow for a parcel containing a church parking lot to be exempt. Mr. Harris has maintained that by denying an exemption to his church, Pender County is giving preferential treatment to religions that practice solely indoors.

The case is on appeal to the N.C. Property Tax Commission. It may be a year before it is heard, and Mr. Harris hopes the state will be more understanding than the county. "The Pender County stance is based on prejudice to our religion," he said. "If we were Presbyterian or Baptist, we'd already have our exemption."

While its case is under appeal, the Church of Yahshua the Christ at Wilmington will not pay the $263 yearly property tax bill. County Manager Martin Beach said if the church believes it has a case, it is taking the right steps by going through the appeals process. "They didn't like the decision. They are appealing. That is what they should do," he said.

Mr. Harris readily admits that the Church of Yahshua isn't mainstream. The church teaches that Caucasians are the chosen people of God - whom they call YHWH (pronounced yah-way) - and as the "elect," members of the congregation are answerable to biblical law first and civil law second.

Standing at the sign by the property declaring that visitors crossing its boundaries are leaving the jurisdiction of national and state law and entering the kingdom of YHWH, Mr. Harris appeared as unconventional as the church he serves. Standing 6-foot-1, and with a massive build, Mr. Harris has a red beard and patch of crewcut hair crowning the top of his shaved head.

Mr. Harris is an insurance salesman by trade, but for the last year he has taken on the tax dispute with a religious fervor, peppering his many letters to the county with references to law and the Bible. The letters also contained suggestions of potential bloody conflict should the tax issue not be resolved in the church's favor.

"Your choice is clear," said a Jan. 28 letter to Pender County tax assessor Harold Triplett. "You can find a way to recognize our exemption or unnecessarily embroil Pender County in a long, expensive and painfully public litigation and set the stage for potential bloodshed."

The letters caused such concern to Pender County officials that the FBI was asked to look into the matter. Agent Mike Holma of the Wilmington FBI office said a referral was made to the office, but he would not say who made it. He also said no action resulted from the investigation. But Mr. Harris said the passages in the letter are meant to warn, not threaten. "We'll exhaust all legal efforts before we'd do anything," he said, "and we wouldn't do anything Yahweh didn't tell us to do."

Eugene "Buddy" Johnson of Tennessee serves as "apostle" and adviser to the Wilmington congregation. Like its Wilmington counterparts, Mr. Johnson's congregation also holds outdoor rituals. Unlike the Wilmington congregation, however, the Tennessee assembly uses land that is privately held and no one has pursued a tax exemption. Still, Mr. Johnson supports Mr. Harris' fight and says the church is a brotherhood fellowship that only wants to return to the old path of worship. "We are a peaceful association," he said.

But Mr. Johnson admitted his church is sympathetic to some white supremacist groups like the Aryan Nations and anti-government organizations such as Posse Comitatus. Followers of Posse Comitatus believe there is no higher authority than the local sheriff and disregard the notion of state and federal jurisdiction over their activities, said Joe Roy of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Mr. Johnson markets two videotapes he produces through the Posse Comitatus Web site and was a featured speaker along with Posse Comitatus and Christian Identity leader James Wickstrom at a 1998 gathering in Tennessee. Mr. Roy said Christian Identity is a white supremacy belief system that says as descendents of the lost tribes of Israel, whites are God's chosen people and Jews are the descendents of a union between Eve and Satan. He said they also believe that minorities are subhuman.

Mr. Roy said members of Christian Identity don't see themselves as racist. "They think they are very religious, very devout," Mr. Roy said. "They believe God will one day tell them to take up the sword and reclaim the land."

Mr. Harris believes the Church of Yahshua the Christ at Wilmington will prevail on appeal, but has vowed to continue to fight if it doesn't. "There's a line in the sand from a conscience standpoint that we can't go past. The principle and the Constitution is on our side," he said.

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