About that complex Michigan lawsuit: When does a Christian camp turn into a resort?

If you know anything about about the history of religion in Michigan, you know that the region north of Grand Rapids has -- in addition to being famous for its forests and lake-front views -- long been a center for Christian camps and similar facilities.

It's common for Christian encampments to sell land to individuals and congregations so that they can build their own lodges and cottages.

The question, of course, is when these clearly-defined religious institutions turn into resort town or evolve into vaguely defined "spiritual" institutions that are open to all.

So what has happened at the "Bay View Association of the United Methodist Church"? Is this a doctrinally defined, nonprofit religious organization -- a church camp of some kind -- or not?

That's the question raised in a MLive.com report that ran with this headline: "Only Christians can own cottages at this idyllic Michigan resort." The problem is that this question is never really answered or clearly debated.

The key word in that headline, of course, is "resort." The news report itself focuses on the word "association." Here is the top of the story:

EMMET COUNTY, MI -- Just outside of Petoskey, on the shores of Little Traverse Bay, is an upscale community with hundreds of Victorian-era cottages, most decades old, and a unique form of self-governance.
Under an 1889 state law, the cottagers' association can appoint a board of assessors, deputize its own marshal and maintain streets and buildings on collectively owned land.
The association requires owners to have good moral character. But its requirement that owners be practicing Christians -- ideally, members of the United Methodist Church -- is what has come under fire.
"This is not a neighborhood association where they cut the bushes and mow the lawns," Northville attorney Sarah Prescott told MLive and The Grand Rapids Press.
Prescott filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Bay View Chautauqua Inclusiveness Group against the Bay View Association of the United Methodist Church, alleging religious discrimination under the First Amendment and violations of the federal Fair Housing Act, the state's Constitution and civil rights laws.

Methodists are, of course, well known for building campgrounds -- which are often the locations of summer meetings that mix inspiration with denominational business (such as electing bishops and other nuts-and-bolts church work).

A few clicks of a computer mouse yields information that talks about the history of this particular community, but also raises questions about its current "ecumenical" status.

Note that I said "ecumenical," as in an organization of churches, as opposed to "interfaith," as in one open to members of other world religions. Here is how the association's website describes its Methodist roots:

Bay View was founded in 1875 by Michigan Methodists as a camp meeting "for intellectual and scientific culture and the promotion of the cause of religion and morality." At its organizational meeting, officers were elected and Articles of Association were adopted under a general law of the State of Michigan. The pastor of the Methodist Church in Petoskey served as the first liaison agent for the committee.
Although conceived by Methodist clergy and laity, promoted by the joint Michigan Methodist conferences, and often sustained at critical moments by Methodist congregations, Bay View has been ecumenical in management and life. From its beginning, we have welcomed persons of any denominational affiliation who have a desire to assist in perpetuating the Association's principles and purpose.
Begun as a retreat for revival meetings and spiritual refreshment, within the first decade, Bay View expressed its "Methodist concern" for intellectual enlightenment and cultural growth.

So it began as a center for revival meetings and then it evolved. Into what, legally?

That's the issue at the heart of the story. As I said before, it's perfectly normal for, let's say, a Baptist encampment to sell land and properties to Baptists alone. It's a voluntary association with a clearly defined spiritual set of goals.

It sounds like, from day one, Bay View as been Methodist-Plus. The story notes that:

... religion restrictions -- one including a quota on Catholics, the attorney said -- remain, and have upset some cottages owners and prospective buyers. Sometimes, owners cannot leave their cottages to a surviving spouse or children because of their religion, Prescott said.

Ah, there are people who want to sell properties to a larger audience of buyers. This kind of thing happens when people leave one religious group and join another, or leave the faith altogether.

Let's keep reading.

The association was only recently notified of the lawsuit and has not yet responded, but Executive Director Mike Spencer said in a statement he is confident in its legal position.
He said that the association -- named one of the 12 "Prettiest Painted Places" in the U.S. for its colorful, well-kept "gingerbread" cottages -- welcomes everyone, including renters and the greater community, to many events and programs held at the campus.

Read the following carefully:

"Like most private associations, there are specific requirements for membership. Our membership requirements have been part of our history and we understand that some of our members or the general public may disagree with them," the statement said.
"The Bay View Association of the United Methodist Church is an ecumenical, private, voluntary membership, organization," the statement said.
"Unlike many other private properties and private associations, Bay View welcomes the public to our grounds and to experience our programming. We are not a gated community and anyone, regardless of age, income, race, gender, national origin, or religion is welcome on our campus and to attend our events."

So this is, legally, a religious voluntary association that now operates like a vaguely spiritual resort? Is that the crucial question? Is it Christian enough to remain a Christian-only campground? The story notes:

The 337-acre property consists of 444 cottages, two privately owned inns, a bed and breakfast, administrative buildings and a wooded area known as "Bay View Woods."

More questions arise. Are these "privately owned inns" actually church lodges, as one would find in camps across the nation?

I could go on. The story clearly presents that this facility, in the past and in the present, hosts religious events, with a heavy emphasis on Methodist life. But that is not all that it does. And its clear that, when it comes to ownership issues, the past has been complicated.

Once again, read carefully:

The original articles for membership and cottage ownership called for a membership fee, for an applicant to be of "good moral character" and have reached the age of 21.
"However, over time, Bay View has aligned itself with and endorsed and promoted the Christian religion, even as it maintains and uses State-delegated police power," Prescott wrote in the lawsuit.
"Hence, while Jews and other non-religious families once owned homes in Bay View, in or around 1942, the Bay View board adopted a resolution rolling back almost 70 years of tolerance of religious diversity and stating: '... no person shall be accepted as a member of this association or be allowed to rent or lease property or a room, for longer than a period of one day, unless such person is of the white race and a Christian ... ," Prescott wrote.
The race requirement was removed in 1959 but the religion test remained, with "further restrictions on the precise sect of Christian owners" from the 1960s to 1980s, the lawsuit said. During that period, Roman Catholics could only comprise 10 percent of ownership, the lawsuit said. A bylaw change in 1986 required prospective buyers to provide a reference letter from a pastor, the lawsuit said.

Here comes the most interesting sentence in the article, from my church-state perspective.

Prescott said that the state rejected Bay View's efforts to be an "ecclesiastic corporation" with the United Methodist Church controlling its affairs.

Wait. So church leaders attempted to clarify their status as a doctrinally defined private association and the state rejected that?

Then there is this:

The state Court of Appeals said in a 2015 opinion noted that membership in the association is "restricted to practicing Christians."
"While the numerous charitable and benevolent activities (Bay View) engages in are certainly admirable, it appears (Bay View's) primary purpose is to provide an exclusive summer vacation community to those who meet its restrictive membership requirements and have the financial means to purchase a summer cottage."
The lawsuit asks a judge to change the association's bylaws, including requirements that members be practicing Christians and that the majority of association trustees be members of the West Michigan Conference of the United Method Church.

I am sorry to keep quoting large chunks of this story. My point is to note that this is a complicated story, but also to stress that the journalists that produced it may have buried the key issues at the heart of this conflict.

Note that the 2015 court opinion, or at least the sections quoting, appears to have defined Bay View strictly in terms of the ownership of property -- as opposed to its religious mission stated in its foundation documents. Why? Can state officials force a religious association to change its bylaws against its will and, by doing so, redefine what the organization is and what it does?

That's a complex church-state, First Amendment, knot.

Again, I think the question that must be answered is this: Is Bay View still a Christian encampment, in terms of what it does day to day, or has it evolved into a generic, mainstream resort with a few religious trappings? Just how Methodist is this facility?

I hope readers up in that neck of the woods keep me posted on future coverage of this conflict.

MAIN IMAGE: Photo by Bob Sessions, used at Patheos.

Please respect our Commenting Policy