Two Oklahoma City Council candidates attend a church observers have criticized for flying the Confederate flag, making political commentary from the pulpit and training children to use automatic weapons at a church camp.
Windsor Hills Baptist Church's activities have been described as radical by critics who fear it could influence city council decisions if its members are elected Tuesday.
The church had nothing to do with members Adrian Van Manen and Cliff Hearron deciding to run for city council, nor will the church force its religion on Oklahoma City, the two candidates said.
"Some of the people that I've known down there for the last 19 years are helping me in the campaign, but I'm keeping a pretty strict wall of separation between me and the church, not that that's required by law," Hearron said.
"My decision to run was a personal decision, and it has nothing to do with the church," Van Manen said.
"We believe in freedom of religion, so the religious issue is not a point at all with me in the sense I'm going to force, or try to vote in a way to force, other citizens to go against their conscience and their will," Van Manen added.
"We don't want people cramming stuff down our throat, and vice-versa: We're not going to cram it down theirs."
Tom Vineyard, senior pastor at Windsor Hills Baptist Church, said the church stands by its actions, especially the firearms training.
"I'm not going to have a silent voice just because I'm the pastor of a church," Vineyard said. "You cannot be a good Christian if you're not a good citizen. In order to be a good citizen, you've got to be active; you've got to participate in what's going on."
Politics from the pulpit
Windsor Hills Baptist Church is an independent, fundamental Baptist church. The church runs Windsor Hills Baptist School and Oklahoma Baptist College, all at 5517 NW 23 in Oklahoma City.
The church has between 1,000 and 1,200 members, Vineyard said.
Van Manen, who is challenging incumbent Meg Salyer in Oklahoma City's Ward 6, is the music director at the church and teaches music at the college. He has been with the church for 28 years.
Hearron, who is opposing incumbent Patrick Ryan in Ward 8, is a Sunday school teacher at the church and teaches Bible, German and Russian at the college. He has been a member of the church for 19 years.
During a recent church service uploaded to the Internet, Vineyard asked the church's congregation to pray for Hearron and Van Manen.
"Pray for ... Brother Hearron, Brother Van Manen and their campaigns," Vineyard said. "By the way, I want to give my greetings to all of those that are watching online. I heard that they're looking for something that I say to use against Brother Hearron and Brother Van Manen. So, hi out there."
Other online videos show Vineyard asking if church members want to volunteer for political candidates and urging those in the congregation to call elected officials regarding legislation.
Asking the congregation to pray for political campaigns should cost the church its tax-exempt status, said Mike Fuller, president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the Americans for Separation of Church and State.
"That's a violation in my opinion of the prohibition on politicking by a tax-exempt organization," he said. "That strikes me as blatant politicking."
Fuller said the candidates have a right to espouse religious beliefs, but should be cautious once they enter office.
"We have no quarrel with people professing religion during campaigns," he said. "I wouldn't want to prevent them from doing that. Once they get into office and they start pushing for policies based on religion that affect the public, then that's an encroachment on church-state separation, and we do want to get involved in trying to prevent that from happening."
Militia training, critics say
Vineyard made news in January by writing an open letter to Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty, criticizing the chief about statements he made to The Oklahoman advocating stricter gun registration laws. Vineyard also appeared on "Gun Talk," a nationally syndicated radio show.
"Our church, it's almost a prerequisite to be a conceal carry holder to be a member of our church," Vineyard told host Tom Gresham. "We take it very seriously there, as well. We have shooting classes for all of our members. Others that want to come and participate in that, we do that regularly."
The church does gun training at its camp, "Windsor in the Wilds," near Loyal in Kingfisher County. Sessions are for children and adults and include training for pistols, rifles and shotguns, and even some automatic weapons demonstrations, Vineyard told The Oklahoman.
The sessions are always supervised by professionals, Vineyard said. "They're very by-the-book classes that you learn the responsibility and how serious it is to handle one (a gun)."
Others see the sessions differently.
Josh Elliott, who said he attended the church's school and college, said he was an instructor in the early 2000s at the camp about the time he became a Marine reservist. Elliot said he taught elementary school-age children how to march and play capture the flag.
"I don't know how young it was with the automatic weapons, but I know they we're doing it. I didn't teach them myself," he said.
"A lot of what they do is teach these kids what to do with weapons that is stuff they don't need to know," Elliot said. "It sort of reminds me of how al-Qaida trains ... It was like a militia-type movement."
Another former graduate of the church's high school, who wanted to remain anonymous, showed reporters a video he identified as a recording taken of events at Windsor in the Wilds. The Windsor Hills Baptist School graduate described it as militia-like training.
The video opens with a church service inside a metal structure. A man sings to the congregation, and paper shooting targets with a human torso and head outline can be seen hanging on a wall. The video then shows the pastor teaching young girls how to hold and fire an automatic gun before the weapons are fired at targets.
Militias became a heated issue in Oklahoma last year when a handful of conservative state politicians and activists linked to the Sooner Tea Party and its leader, Al Gerhart, were reported to have suggested forming a state militia to defend against unwanted intrusion by the federal government.
Gerhart, the politicians and other activists have said their comments were mischaracterized. This year, Sooner Tea Party endorsed Van Manen and Hearron for city council.
Gun safety training, others say
Vineyard did not respond to a request to verify the video but said calling the camp activities militia training mischaracterizes what is happening. There's no stash of weapons at the church camp or plan to overthrow the government, he said.
"This is well supervised, very well disciplined, very respectful of those that are in authority," he said. "If you're believing what somebody's telling you about a militia, then you've got it all wrong."
Ed Cunnius, the coordinator of the state Wildlife Conservation Department's shotgun training program, said the camp has some of the best supervision that he sees when presenting the department's program. The department has taken its basic Shotgun Training Education Program to the camp for three years.
Cunnius said before the first time he went to the camp he heard something about it being a militia-style camp, checked into it and found the accusation false.
"If it was something that was out of the way or something that wasn't kosher, I would be the first one not to be there," he said. "I wouldn't expose the department to any kind of controversy, or I wouldn't expose my program to anything that would be questionable."
It's not just politics and guns that have led to criticism.
Oklahoma Baptist College, which trains preachers, holds the North South School of the Prophets at the end of the school year.
Students divide up sides and are judged on sermons they give. Photographs of the event posted on the college's website show one group of students holding American flags and the other group of students holding Confederate flags.
"That just flies in the face of not just African Americans, but all reasonable thinking people," said The Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., senior pastor of East Sixth Street Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Jackson is not related to The Rev. Jesse Jackson who regularly makes the national news.
"There's no rationale that people can make for me to agree with flying it right now and it's certainly no use in a church," said Jackson, who preaches to a congregation of mostly black people in northeast Oklahoma City.
"Why an institution of higher learning would be going back and revisiting the same arguments that were settled 150 years ago, is troubling."
Vineyard, who is president of the college, said the event doesn't have anything to do with the reasons for the Civil War.
"It's all about preaching," he said. "That's just what we choose to use. It's a fun time; it's a good experience."
Hearron said he has attended the event in the past.
"I believe it is a motivation fun type of thing and the sides north versus south could have been salt versus pepper; it could have been yes versus no," he said. "I don't think there's really any thought of the actual south and the actual north."
Pastor will carry on
Vineyard said he will continue to speak his mind on gun control and other issues, despite criticism.
In December, Vineyard and others took a Windsor Hills church bus to Bartlesville, where about 60 people gathered outside a dinner for state House Republicans. Protesters warned of dire consequences for RINOs "Republicans In Name Only " in response to Republicans that were not conservative enough on social issues.
"They needed to hear our voice," Vineyard said. "That's part of the American process, isn't' it?"
Vineyard said he also goes to the state Capitol on a regular basis to talk with elected officials.
"I'm going to stand up as every citizen should have the right to do," Vineyard said. "The First Amendment is for everybody."
Van Manen and Hearron said they support Vineyard's right to voice his opinion and agree with him on many of them, but said people should not mistake all the pastor's words for theirs.
"The impact on my decisions come out of the Bible, the principles that I find there and live by, the principles that the founding fathers put in our Constitution and the state constitution, the city charter," Hearron said.
Van Manen and Hearron said the scrutiny of their church is trivial and unfair.
"Ward 8 people are not stupid," Hearron said. "They shake their heads and smile when they hear stuff like that. They know what's going on."
Van Manen said: "I'll guarantee you that the criticisms are unfounded and unjust ... I want nothing but what is best for people and that's what our church wants."