After 17 years of refusing to pay taxes, the Patriot-linked Indianapolis Baptist Temple was seized by the federal government after a 92-day 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.
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."
In Nebraska, the Movement Begins
The ideology and structure of today's unregistered churches movement can be traced to a remarkable conflict in the early 1980s between the state of Nebraska and the Faith Baptist Church (FBC) in Louisville.
FBC, headed by Rev. Everett Sileven, opened an uncertified school in its basement for 17 students in August 1977. Nebraska law then required even private school teachers to be certified by the state, and a judge issued an injunction to close the school.
Maintaining that "this school represents our right to exercise our religion," and that "the state is in violation of God's law," Sileven, who as a high school student opposed the senior prom because dancing supposedly inspires lustful thoughts, began a long legal battle.
While the church appealed the injunction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (which in 1981 refused to hear the case), a local judge ordered the Nebraska church's doors padlocked shut and opened only Sundays and Wednesday evenings for prayer services. Twice the locks were removed, twice Sileven began classes again, and twice he was jailed for contempt of court.
The second time he surrendered only after locking himself and his congregation in the church and conducting a several-day standoff with authorities.
With Sileven in jail in October 1982, 85 supporters from around the nation arrived for prayer services and refused to leave. Among them was the national secretary of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority — Gregory J. Dixon, Sr. Along with many others, Dixon was arrested the next day when the sheriff raided the church.
A few days later, 450 pastors from around the country occupied the church, and the padlocking order was rescinded for fear of violence. When Sileven was released from jail, Dixon walked with him down the courthouse steps.
The case dragged on. Classes began again, school parents were jailed for contempt of court and, in November 1983, a warrant was issued for Sileven's arrest. He fled the state, giving speeches nationwide, but returned dramatically, in a helicopter, to hole up in the church for another standoff with the sheriff.
Back in court, he was again found in contempt. This time, he got an eight-month sentence.
But Sileven eventually won. In 1984, a governor's panel decided that the Nebraska statute was probably unconstitutional, and the legislature exempted church schools from the certification requirements.
Sileven's eight-month sentence was overturned on appeal, and a panel of federal judges ruled that the sheriff had acted unconstitutionally by arresting dozens of people in the October 1982 raid on the church.
The White Race, Enslaved
For unregistered churches, the Sileven affair was seminal. Fundamentalists had come together to fight what they saw as an overreaching government, and they had won. At the same time, Dixon's place in the Moral Majority was less and less secure.
According to Edgar Towne, professor emeritus at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, the Moral Majority at the time was trying to "slough off the militants like Greg Dixon," who were hurting the group's mainstream appeal.
Dixon quit the Moral Majority in 1983, and for several months directed the Coalition for Religious Freedom (CRF) and its protests against the prosecution of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church for tax fraud.
But soon Dixon left CRF and threw himself into his new organization, the American Coalition of Unregistered Churches (ACUC). IBT quit paying taxes in 1984, the same year Sileven won his Nebraska battle. In 1985, under the aegis of Dixon, the ACUC held its first national conference in Indianapolis.
(The ACUC now exists only as a Dixon Web site. In 1994, the Unregistered Baptist Fellowship was created as a successor organization and took over ACUC's conferences, which have stayed in Indianapolis, and became the main organization for unregistered churches.)
During the mid-1980s, as the radical right spread through the Midwest, Dixon's position hardened. He held a "Court of Divine Justice" which, according to an article in the Jerusalem Post, prayed for the death of public officials on a "prayer hit list."
He began to read the infamous anti-Semitic publication The Spotlight; saying in a 1990 letter to the editor that he considered it "an excellent publication."
"The Welfare State has enslaved the white race for generations to come," Dixon wrote in a 1993 issue of his newsletter, The Trumpet.
"[We should] repeal all Civil Rights Laws. ... If it were not for the white man, the black man would have starved to death long ago. He would also have gone to Hell long ago. ... In spite of the wickedness of slavery as an institution, more blacks will probably be in heaven because of slavery than [because of] mission activity."
Dixon and his unregistered church movement have also embraced a litany of hard-liners.
Pete Peters, a leading figure in racist Christian Identity theology, convened a key 1992 meeting of right-wing extremists in Estes Park, Colo., which established the contours of the soon-to-explode militia movement.
Dixon, who said Peters "restores [his] faith in preachers," was very clear that day: "Every church in America should have its own militia."
W.N. Otwell, pastor of God Said Ministries in Mt. Enterprise, Texas, has attended UBF conferences and, according to Dixon, is deeply involved in the movement. Otwell believes that "God uses the white race as leaders," and "the black race ... is a servitude people."
Explaining the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing as "God's payback" for the deaths of Branch Davidians after a standoff with federal agents in Waco, Texas, Otwell once said: "God did not mind killing a bunch of women and kids. God talks about slaughter! 'Don't leave one suckling! Don't leave no babies! Don't leave nothing! Kill them! Destroy them!'"
Rev. Robert McCurry of Heritage Baptist Church in Georgia, who stood with Dixon in Sileven's church in 1983, has been central to ACUC and UBF since the beginning, often leading seminars with Dixon at the national conferences.
McCurry has stayed close to Sileven (who has changed his name to Everett Sileven Ramsey), even as Sileven moved further to the right, adopting the anti-Semitic Christian Identity theology.
McCurry has spoken at Sileven's Identity conferences and has published at least one article in Sileven's newsletter, America Today.
Rev. Fred Phelps, the infamous gay-basher and vitriolic founder of the www.godhatesf---.com Web site, was invited by Dixon to speak at the 1995 UBF conference. Dixon, who has frequently complained of being portrayed as an extremist, also wrote a 1999 article defending Phelps in the Citizens Informer, the publication of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens.
During the recent standoff at IBT, current pastor Greg Dixon, Jr., renounced violence and asked some of IBT's more extremist supporters to leave, calling them "blowhards." But allowed to stay was long-time Patriot figure James "Bo" Gritz, who broadcast his radio show from the sanctuary and who has been moving toward Christian Identity beliefs himself.
Also permitted to remain was Neal Horsley, whose violently anti-abortion "Nuremberg Files" Web site long carried information about doctor's families and other details that many saw as useful only to an assassin. Horsley's site was shut down after a court levied a multimillion civil judgment against the individuals and groups that had given Horsley his information. (In late March, however, a federal appeals court overturned the civil judgment; see Accused Assassin Arrested in France.)
Recently, Horsley decided to take up the cause of unregistered churches in earnest and began developing a new Web site, www.freechurchmovement.com.
"Liberty has strange bedfellows," the younger Dixon told a reporter about these connections. "If your only friends are those that you agree 100% with, you're not going to have many friends."
And the Beat Goes On
Over the last 10 years, UBF conferences (and ACUC conferences before them) have been well organized, with attendance in the hundreds and sometimes even approaching a thousand. Seminar topics have included "What To Do When the Authorities Come for Your Children" and "Preparing Global Children for the New World Order."
Other activities have included communal burnings of the United Nations flag and the presentation of such skits as "Our Lost Culture," performed "in full antebellum and Confederate dress."
The first Sunday after the seizure, hundreds showed up for IBT services in the auditorium of a local (tax-supported) high school. Afterwards, Greg Dixon, Jr., gushed about the enthusiasm of the "tremendous crowd."
Yet today there is a real uneasiness about what will happen, for IBT in particular and for unregistered churches in general. Talking to the Intelligence Report, Dixon, Sr., was candid. "I don't know [where we'll go from here]. Frankly, I'm so stunned right now over this decision... . I think we're at a place where everybody's on their own, so to speak, and it's a prepare-to-meet-thy-God situation."
Despite the clear isolation of Indianapolist Baptist Church from the political mainstream and the loss of the church itself, the unregistered church movement today does not seem to be collapsing. About 200 people, including 50 to 100 ministers, came from 15 states for the UBF conference in October 2000, with the seizure imminent.
This spring, there are UBF regional meetings slated for Paducah, Ky., Columbus, Ohio, and Houston. And, once the organization decides on a suitable replacement for IBT as host, UBF intends to hold its 17th national conference this fall.