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Members of Together Baton Rouge hold a press conference on the steps of City Hall before a meeting of the metro council, Wednesday, January 23, 2019, in downtown Baton Rouge, La. In the front from left are Dianne Hanley, Rev. Lee Wesley, Rev. Clee Earnest Lowe and Jennifer Carwile.

The council of First United Methodist Church has voted to leave Together Baton Rouge, the senior pastor announced Tuesday.

Together Baton Rouge is a coalition of local nonprofits, mostly religious congregations. The group counts 40 member organizations on its website, not including the First United Methodist church downtown.

"The Church Council's decision was not based on TBR’s merits or whether we agree or disagree with TBR’s position on issues in our community, but on our desire to remain focused on our mission," Senior Pastor Brady Whitton wrote in a statement issued Tuesday.

Together Baton Rouge has championed several causes in the capital area, though recently it has become best known for its work on the state's Industrial Tax Exemption Program. ITEP allows corporations to forgo local taxes on new investments. The nonprofit group successfully lobbied for control of the program to be vested in local taxing authorities rather than run by the state. Since then, they've sought to tighten standards on when tax exemptions are warranted.

Recently, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board narrowly voted to deny a pair of exemption applications filed by ExxonMobil, which then pulled a similar pair of proposals set to be considered by the Metro Council. The handling of ITEP has divided the community.

Whitton — who was said to be traveling Tuesday and unavailable for comment — did not mention ITEP by name and said parishioners who back Together Baton Rouge are still welcome to do so.

"We support much of the work TBR has done in our community and encourage individual congregants who are so led to continue their support of and work with TBR," the pastor wrote.

In a brief response, TBR organizer Lee Wesley of Community Bible Church invoked Martin Luther King Jr.

"Dr. King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail of the difference between a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, and a positive peace, which is the presence of justice. A few congregations in our city will feel the tension of this moment in history more than others," Wesley said in a written statement.

He added: "My colleagues and I are praying for their clergy, as they struggle to discern which peace is the peace of Christ." 

The announcement that First United Methodist is pulling out of TBR follows a busy Monday in which Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome invited business, nonprofit and academic leaders to discuss ways ExxonMobil has served the Baton Rouge community.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, and state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, announced Monday their intent to file a bill that would revert control of ITEP to the state.

Other leaders have said they are still trying to make local administration of the program work, or that the failure of one suit of applications does not mean Baton Rouge does not support local business expansion.

The corporation at the heart of the recent ITEP dust-up had news of its own Tuesday.

"ExxonMobil said today that it has reached a final investment decision and started construction on a new unit at its Beaumont, Texas refinery that will increase crude refining capacity by more than 65 percent, or 250,000 barrels per day," the company wrote in a statement.

The facility, expected to come online by 2022, is part of Exxon's Growing the Gulf initiative to continue operations expansions throughout the region.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.