After 13 weeks of waiting, the confiscation went peacefully. U.S. marshals kept their pistols holstered and carried five church members who didn't want to leave the building out on stretchers.
There were no injuries.
The U.S. Supreme Court had cleared the way for the seizure last month.
The Baptist Temple stopped withholding federal income and Social Security taxes from its employees' paychecks in 1984, saying the fundamentalist church's duty to obey God allowed no room for manmade laws and that withholding taxes would make it an agent of the government.
Tuesday's action marked the first time the federal government had seized a church for failing to pay taxes, said Richard Hammar, an attorney for the Springfield, Mo.-based Assemblies of God denomination, and an expert on churches and tax law.
"To have the IRS come in and seize the church's property, that is an extraordinary event unparalleled in American history," Hammar has said.
The move peacefully ended a 91-day vigil at the church that had drawn the attention of both constitutional scholars and right-wing militia members.Hundreds of supporters, including anti-government activists and militia leaders, traveled to the church from around the nation to protest. Eventually, the church asked them to leave.
Police sealed the perimeter of the church, and deputy marshals entered about 8:40 a.m.
Five church members were inside praying in the sanctuary when 85 federal marshals arrived, supported by 70 city police officers. The five were then ordered to leave.
Agents escorted journalists out of the church and then started carrying church members out.
The church's founder, the Rev. Gregory J. Dixon, was in the sanctuary when the marshals arrived. As he was brought out on the stretcher, he looked up at the marshals and said, "Forgive them, oh God, for what they have done today... Oh God, I pray in Jesus' name that you speak to their hearts."
It was Dixon who in the 1980s began the church's fight with the Internal Revenue Service. Church officials said they haven't paid taxes in years because they don't want to be regulated by the federal government. They claim church workers pay taxes on their own.
Registered churches are exempt from certain taxes but still must pay employee withholding taxes. Dixon refused even to apply for tax-exempt status, saying taxing any church violates the First Amendment separation of church and state.
After 16 years of court challenges, U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker issued an order on Nov. 14 allowing the marshals to seize the church. But marshals took their time in seizing the church because they said they didn't want an ugly confrontation that might lead to bloodshed.
Federal marshals seized a parsonage a few miles from the church on Nov. 14.
The judge's order had authorized marshals to seize the property by force if necessary.
"The fight is still not over," the younger Dixon said. "We are going to continue this fight for religious liberty.
"They have trampled the First Amendment; they have desecrated a house of God," he said. "They have brought God's judgment down upon them, their souls, their wives, their children, their political careers. I feel sorry for them."
The elder Dixon, clearly upset by the seizure, accused the Bush Administration of betraying the church. He said church members had a deal with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, but it had been broken.
"The purge has started," said the elder Dixon, the church's pastor emeritus, as the marshals wheeled him out.
"We had a promise from the Bush administration. We had every reason to believe there was a moratorium.... They were going to dismiss the case. We had a deal, and they welshed on the deal," Dixon said.
In its heyday, the church had about 8,000 members, but membership declined to about 2,000 members.
"David got Goliath," church member Susie Wallen said. "But if our Goliath hadn't had bullets, we could've whipped their butts."