Church preaches hatred, faces challenge on tax status

August 30, 1991|By Bruce Henderson | Bruce Henderson,Knight-Ridder News Service

OTTO, N.C. -- The Church of the Creator is like no other church.

It is actively anti-Christian. It holds no regular services and has scant liturgy. Its ministers, some of them teen-agers from Wisconsin with shaved heads and tattoos, do not attend seminaries.

Instead of preaching peace, church members, who call themselves Creators, spout hatred -- of Jews, Christians, blacks and other "mud races" they believe threaten the survival of whites.

But it's still a church in the government's eyes.

The church holds an Internal Revenue Service exemption. And for seven years, Macon County in western North Carolina has granted a property tax exemption on church land and buildings worth more than $200,000.

The county tax assessor is trying to revoke the exemption but has failed so far. The North Carolina Property Tax Commission is expected to hold hearings on the matter in the next few months.

Ben Klassen, the pontifex maximus of the Church of the Creator, calls this harassment. Meanwhile, he dreams of a worldwide white revolution "not dissimilar to what Hitler did in Germany with the Nazi party." Disappointed by George Wallace, neo-Nazis and the John Birch Society, Mr. Klassen founded his "religion" 18 years ago. He calls his mission a "racial holy war."

Although the "war" is now being waged with propaganda, the imagery of violence surrounds the church.

Mr. Klassen's monthly newspaper, Racial Loyalty, is so incendiary that it was banned earlier this year by the warden of the state's Central Prison. "In reading it, you'd have to be a total moron not to figure out they're advocating violence," said a law enforcement official in Jacksonville, Fla.

A Jacksonville member of the Church of the Creator, the Rev. George David Loeb, is charged with shooting and killing a black veteran of the Persian Gulf war in May. In June, Racial Loyalty granted an "Award of Honor" to members of the Jacksonville chapter "for their exceptional efforts in promoting creativity in their area."

Young men with Northern or Midwestern accents -- the skinheads Mr. Klassen recruits -- sometimes appear in the little community of Otto, just north of the Georgia line. Mr. Klassen says the skinheads promise "a good potential" for the church.

"They're activist young people who know something's wrong, but they don't know what to do about it," he said. "They encounter the Church of the Creator and find the answer."

Whites, Mr. Klassen asserts, are in the grip of a centuries-old Jewish conspiracy he blames for everything from the Civil War to the federal deficit. Christians are dupes of the Jews. Non-white races, he asserts, threaten to overwhelm and "mongrelize" whites out of existence.

Mr. Klassen wants to ship all "enemies of the white race" out of the country, though church doctrine leaves unclear exactly how that is to be accomplished.

The Church of the Creator moved to Macon County, where Mr. Klassen owned land, in 1982. He built his church headquarters on 21 acres, which has a tax value of $201,250. He lives in a house valued at $181,690 that overlooks the church.

After some initial threats -- Mr. Klassen says somebody once blasted the big "W" (for white) on the church headquarters with buckshot -- his neighbors now don't bother him.

"I think people in the beginning had a lot to say about it, but not much anymore," said Gloria Allred, a clerk at the State Line package store a half-mile away. "I think people just decided to leave him alone."

The county tax office is another matter. The Church of the Creator obtained a Macon County property tax exemption in 1984. State law allows such exemptions for property used for religious purposes.

But soon after Richard Lightner took his job as county tax assessor, he drove out to look over the church property in 1988. It was weedy, he recalls, and looked unused.

Mr. Lightner did some research. He decided the church wasn't a church. The Creators do not worship a deity or train ministers formally. A church minister from Otto who testified at a tax hearing, Mr. Lightner said, described his duties as processing mail and cutting grass.

"What it adds up to is a political organization," Mr. Lightner said. Churches, he said, "don't deny the right of other groups to peacefully coexist."

In response, Mr. Klassen said that Mr. Lightner was "goaded and I'm sure guided by the ADL [Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith]."

Mr. Klassen himself, in advising a follower how to get started in business, once wrote that founding a church is "the only way to go these days, no taxes, gets the government off your back!"

The North Carolina Property Tax Commission ruled that the county had waited too long to notify Mr. Klassen it was revoking the exemption. The North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the commission.

As a result of the case, the General Assembly this summer enacted a law that requires local officials to review such tax exemptions regularly.

But the tax commission has not yet ruled on the central question -- is the Church of the Creator a church? Hearings are to be held late this year or early in 1992.

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