Bay View is for many an idyllic community – but a lawsuit will test its rule that only practicing Christians can own property
Tucked away in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, somewhere along the winding roads that hug Great Lakes shores, is an idyllic town named Bay View. For more than a century, generations of “Bay Viewers” have congregated here to share in summer activities.
What started out as a modest camping ground for Methodist families 140 years ago has quietly developed into a stunning vacation spot for people who can afford the upkeep of a second home. Streets named Moss, Fern and Maple are dotted with impeccably maintained century-old gingerbread cottages. Over the horizon, residents can watch lifelong friends sail their boats across the water.
But this paradise is not open to all.
In Bay View, only practicing Christians are allowed to buy houses, or even inherit them.
Prospective homeowners, according to a bylaw introduced in 1947 and strengthened in 1986, are required to produce evidence of their faith by providing among other things a letter from a Christian minister testifying to their active participation in a church.
Last summer, a dozen current and former resident members filed a federal lawsuit against the town, its ruling Bay View Association and a real estate company, claiming the Christian litmus test was illegal and unconstitutional.
Is Bay View a religious community simply seeking to practice its own beliefs, in peace, as it has always desired? Or is it, as the lawsuit claims, a community in clear violation of constitutional, civil and religious rights – to say nothing of federal housing rights?
Sophie McGee, an 80-year-old yoga lover with a PhD, proudly shows me around her 1887 Bay View waterfront summer home, which she shared for decades with her late husband. The cottage boasts four fireplaces and has a creaky yet polished quality to it. Over the years, family and friends have filled the home with warmth and laughter.
McGee tells me that her father, a Greek Orthodox immigrant, was denied membership at his local golf club, which is how, searching for community and recreation, he started heading north in the summertime to Bay View.
Here, he and his family were welcomed as members.
That Bay View excludes people based on their religious affiliation – the very behavior that brought McGee’s family here in the first place – is one reason why McGee believes the resort town’s membership policies should be updated, and the opportunity to buy properties opened up to non-Christians.
But not all her friends agree, she says.
McGee takes me on a tour of Bay View in early autumn, a season that suits it well.
One of the few remaining Chautauquas – a name given to late 19th-century Methodist communities who formalized summer camping grounds with arts, education, religious and recreational programs – Bay View’s 447 homes have been deemed so special that they have earned a position on the National Register of Historic Places.
The town feels like the place of America’s definitive apple pie recipe – and indeed it very well may be: this is where Irma Rombauer summered, creating and perfecting recipes that eventually led to the publication of the Joy of Cooking, the American culinary bible that sits, well worn, in millions of household kitchens.
As McGee and I make our way through the streets, the few, mostly retired residents who are still here after Labor Day shout out warm greetings. A woman accompanied by her pedigree dog vigorously waves at us. It is Betty Stevens, McGee tells me.
Betty and her husband, Glenn, a former Bay View Association board member, do not believe the membership rules should change, although Betty is quick to point out that the town gladly accepts non-Christian tenants and visitors, adding that they themselves had a Muslim woman stay with them over the summer.
“This place was founded with a purpose. People were coming to a camp meeting ground to participate in a Christian spiritual reawakening,” Glenn Stevens tells me from the porch of his late mother’s house, where Ernest Hemingway once partied.
He argues the rules for current members have always been the same, requiring active affiliation with a Christian church. Joining is a voluntary act, he says. To change your mind about these rules once you become a member, as indicated by the lawsuit, is disingenuous.
Jon Butler, a historian of religion and a professor emeritus at Yale University, says the existence of these rules is not entirely abnormal; many Americans still live in homes that have restrictive covenants inscribed into their deeds. They are just not usually enforced.
What is surprising, he says, is “that the association being sued is defending itself”.
Can there be a religious exemption to discrimination?
Early Bay View documents dating up until the beginning of the 20th century show that although the resort community has always had a Christian mission, the original membership requirements were being over 21 and of “good moral character”.
The Christian exclusionary component was introduced in the 1940s. This was a time of heightened racial anxiety and antisemitism in the US, with swaths of Jewish refugees denied asylum from Europe – an act supported by a majority of the American public.
The Christian-only clause was introduced together with a white-only clause, which the association eliminated the following decade. Catholics were given a 10% quota, which was eventually dropped. Over the years, however, the Christian-only requirement was, if anything, reinforced.
The lawsuit charges that Bay View Association, although private (some private entities including gentlemen’s clubs or the Boy Scouts, for example, historically have been able to discriminate), acts in effect as a governmental entity, endowed with the powers to police and enforce laws.
As such, the lawsuit claims, it is engaging in religious discrimination in violation of the US and Michigan constitutions, Michigan’s civil rights act and the Fair Housing Act.
Mike Steinberg, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, believes the lawsuit is an “open-and-shut case”.
“This is pure discrimination by a governmental entity. Bay View is clearly one and governmental entities cannot favor one religion over another, or religion over no religion.”
The federal lawsuit is only in its first steps, though, having failed in mediation at the end of January. And under the Trump presidency, with a rightwing-dominated supreme court sympathetic to religious arguments, times feel uncertain.
Late last year, the supreme court heard a case about a baker in Colorado who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, justifying his denial of services as based on sincerely held religious belief. The question at the heart of this as yet undecided case was: can there be a religious exemption to discrimination?
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SOURCE: The Guardian – Rose Hackman