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First Baptist Savannah gets new license following fine for Cuba travel


(RNS) — As the Alliance of Baptists appeals a $34,000 penalty for allegedly violating travel rules to Cuba, two of the five churches charged with breaking the rules have recently received new licenses to visit the island nation.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) informed the Washington-based alliance in July that five churches that had used its license had itineraries that “did not reflect a program of full-time religious activity” in Cuba, including tourist activities and “beach time.”

Two of the churches – First Baptist Church of Savannah and First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., received new licenses in March and August, respectively.

John Finley, senior minister of the Georgia church, said of the new license and the penalty notice: “We don’t know what to make of that.”

He said his congregation believes it has been “in full compliance of all of the regulations” as it has visited churches in Cuba under previous licenses, including those of the alliance.

“When their license was suspended, we applied for our own and received it promptly,” Finley said, who noted that church members took “an innocent kind of walking tour for which we paid no money” that was led by their Cuban hosts.

“Apparently, the civil penalties division and the licensing division ... are doing their work on separate tracks,” said Stan Hastey, executive director of the alliance and a member of the Washington church.

He said the alliance, which is affiliated with 117 U.S. churches, sent its appeal of the “prepenalty notice” by Sept. 1. If it had to pay the full penalty, it would amount to more than 10 percent of its annual budget.

Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said she could not comment on particular cases.

“A finding of violation from OFAC does not necessarily preclude an entity from ever again obtaining a license from OFAC,” she said in an emailed response to questions. “And actually, in some cases an entity that has received a penalty for violating an OFAC regulation may know better than most how to steer clear of unauthorized transactions.”