Seizure of Indianapolis Baptist Temple Ends Standoff, But ‘Unregistered’ Church Movement Continues

The seizure of Indianapolis Baptist Temple ends a standoff, but the 'unregistered churches' movement is still in business

As the minutes ticked away to the deadline to vacate the Indianapolis Baptist Temple (IBT) at noon last Nov. 14, a crowd of 400 inside the sanctuary held its figurative breath.

They had tried to keep the most volatile elements outside; supporters from the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, were not allowed in. Still, would the arrival of federal marshals, seizing the church for unpaid taxes, trigger violence?

But the marshals didn't show — that day, or the next, or even that week. As the church's congregants anxiously waited, their worst fears were summed up by Charlie Puckett, commander of the Kentucky State Militia. Probably, he thought, some "idiot programmed by the CIA mind control" would "mistakenly, accidentally, on purpose" fire a weapon at someone and "cause an outbreak."

Ominously, he predicted "if that happens, it starts... . [P]lans go into effect and you know what that is. ... I have no other choice."

Cryptic, but understood by all. In the name of religious freedom, some were preparing for a showdown with the government as fatal and tragic as the conflagration at Waco, Texas.

It was not to be. On Feb. 13, 17 years of unpaid taxes, three years of litigation and a 92-day standoff all ended with a whimper, not a bang. When hundreds of federal and local officers finally raided the church, only eight hardy supporters were found and carried out on stretchers. There was no violence.

For Gregory J. Dixon, Sr., whose public career started when he tried to ban the musical "Hair" from Indianapolis in the 1960s and has extended to suggesting that slavery saved blacks from going to hell, this was the culmination of 17 years of promoting so-called "unregistered" churches.

'Christian Resistance'
Dixon, who once advocated repealing all civil rights laws, is best known as pastor emeritus of IBT and a man who has had numerous flirtations with the antigovernment "Patriot" movement. (His more politically moderate son, Gregory A. Dixon, Jr., is the current IBT pastor.)

Yet since 1984, the elder Dixon has also headed a little-noticed, but nationwide radical church movement based on the notion that religion should have nothing whatsoever to do with the state.

Churches like IBT refuse to "register" as charities under section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code, even though that means forsaking the tax and other advantages that that legal status brings.

The movement, grouped into a confederation of almost 100 congregations that has met at IBT each October for 16 years, has been organized since 1994 as the Unregistered Baptist Fellowship (UBF); earlier, its predecessor organization operated under a different name.

By promoting a "theology of Christian resistance" to earthly government, the UBF also has attracted extremists of many stripes, from those advocating hatred of the government, homosexuals and abortion providers, to a number of hard-core racists and anti-Semites.

"The unregistered church movement," says Leonard Zeskind, a leading analyst of the extreme right, "is halfway between the Moral Majority and the Posse Comitatus," a racist and anti-Semitic tax protest group of the 1980s.

Zip Codes as Sin
The term "unregistered" was originally used to describe underground churches in the Soviet Union that evaded regulation by the bureaucracy of a state opposed to religion.

America's "unregistered" churches, many of which sent Bibles to unregistered Soviet churches in the 1970s, adopted the term to show they thought the United States matched the USSR in its smothering of religious liberty.

The principal goal of unregistered churches is to avoid 501(c)3 incorporation, which is the normal status for charities and religious groups, because they see accepting that status as caving in to secular demands that interfere with religion.

Most organizations crave 501(c)3 status because it exempts them from corporate income taxes and allows donors to deduct gifts from their taxable incomes.

But 501(c)3 organizations, like all organizations with employees, must make FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) contributions, including Medicare and Social Security, and must withhold federal income taxes from their employees' paychecks.

To unregistered churches, obeying these laws "would be a sin under the religious convictions of the Church respecting the sovereignty of the Lordship of Jesus Christ as the head of the Church in all things."

But that's not all. They say churches should disengage from government in most every other way. They should not allow fire or building inspections or heed zoning laws. They should not permit their pastors or teachers to receive any sort of license. Newborns should not be issued birth certificates, and weddings should not involve marriage licenses.

Churches may use the federal mail system, but should not use nonprofit mailing permits or even zip codes.

IBT claimed that the people who were paid to work in the office and sweep the floors were not employees, but rather "ministers" who were paid "cash love gifts only." (Ministers, who are considered self-employed, are exempt from FICA taxes.) IBT also alleged that it was not a legal corporation or entity.

The last such corporation supposedly ended in 1989 with the dissolution of Not A Church, Incorporated, which had been established to handle IBT's legal affairs. Finally, the church argued, section 501(c)3 is unconstitutional, a violation of the First Amendment guarantee that Congress will make no law abridging the free exercise of religion.

IBT's arguments, the federal judge in IBT's tax case ruled in the end, were "sadly mistaken." But Dixon still doesn't think so. "Right now, the purge is on to bring churches under government control," he told the Intelligence Report recently.

Government agents, Dixon added, "consider me one of the most dangerous enemies in America."