U.S. Treasury officials have fined the Alliance of Baptists $34,000 after citing Birmingham’s Baptist Church of the Covenant and al other churches for engaging in banned tourist activities while in Cuba for religious purposes.
The alliance’s executive director, Stan Hastey, said the group plan to notify the U.S. Treasury Department by Sept. 1 that it will appeal the fine.
The fine would constitute about 10 percent of the alliance’s budget for operating expenses.
Hastey told The Birmingham News that the group may end up settling, but even a reduced fine would be a blow.
The department’s July 5 letter notifying Hastey of the fine mentioned four other Baptist churches guilty of violations during trips to Cuba between 2003 and 2005. A letter last year notified the group its license to travel to Cuba was revoked and accused the Birmingham church delegation of not engaging in a full-time schedule of religious activities as required during a a trip in March 2005.
“The purpose of the trip was to go there for a site visit to get a feel for what kind of partnership we could develop,” said the Rev. Sarah Jackson Shelton, pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant, who did not go on the trip.
Shelton said associate pastor John Duke and lay coordinator Todd Hefner organized the trip, relying on Hastey and Cuban church officials for guidance.
Duke said one church member bought Cuban cigars which were confiscated by U.S. Customs, and that prompted extra scrutiny of the itinerary.
Shelton said the delegation went to establish ties with Baptist Church of Boca de Muriel, which also has a woman pastor.
She did not dispute that church members may have made visits to farms, museums and crafts markets as alleged in the letter.
“It was our very first trip; we didn’t know,” Shelton said. “Part of that was to help the economy. It was all done in conjunction with the pastor of the Cuban church and director of the Baptist convention in Cuba.”
Hastey, who was on the trip along with five church representatives, said the group’s visit to the beach resort town of Varadero near Havana may have raised a red flag.
“It is well-known by religious groups that have traveled to Cuba for years that the Presbyterian guest house in the city, not in the resort area, made available meals and overnight accommodations,” Hastey said. “Lots and lots of religious groups use that facility.”
He believes the Bush administration has been cracking down on Cuban policy, and singled out the alliance because of its opposition to the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba.
Treasury Department spokewsoman Molly Millerwise declined comment, saying the department does not discuss individual cases.
The other churches mentioned in the Treasury Department’s letter notifying Hastey of the fine were the First Baptist churches of Washington, D.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Greensville, S.C.; and Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.