In 1942, the board of the Bay View Association of the United Methodist Church (in Michigan) said that anyone who owned a cottage on their property had to meet two requirements: They had to be white and they had to be Christian. (Those requirements, even more disturbingly, did not apply to “servants within a household” or employees.)
They wisely dropped the “white” requirement more than a decade later, but the Christian requirement remained. Only a certain kind of Christian, too — there was a 10% quota on the maximum number of Roman Catholics who could own property there even after the race requirement was dropped. (In one case, a Catholic doctor who bought a cottage was “required to sell due solely to his religion and the religious quota.”) Even now, prospective buyers have to include a recommendation letter from a pastor.
You might say that private organizations are allowed to set their own membership rules, disgraceful as they might be (everyone wave to the anti-atheist Boy Scouts). Indeed, the Bay View Association says they’re affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Just look at their name!
But according to a new lawsuit filed by the Bay View Chautauqua Inclusiveness Group, the housing association is guilty of violating the First Amendment, the federal Fair Housing Act, Michigan’s Constitution, and civil rights laws.
They argue that Bay View isn’t affiliated in any meaningful way with the UMC. They operate independently from it and they’re owned by a for-profit company. They also pay taxes, an admission they’re not a church property. And they maintain and use “State-delegated police power.”
This story from the Inclusiveness Group is telling:
[Northville attorney Sarah] Prescott, the attorney, said she represents cottage owners whose children and grandchildren cannot inherit cottages. One of her clients, who eventually would have inherited her parents’ fourth-generation cottage, was denied membership and the right to be a co-owner because she had converted to Judaism.
In response to the lawsuit, the Bay View Association simply said there’s already a way for the by-laws to change. Members can propose new rules and everyone can vote on them. They added that those proposals have “simply have not had enough votes in the past, so it appears that this [Inclusiveness] group is now seeking to change our membership requirements through a court decision.”
If this was a purely private organization, they might have a case. But as the lawsuit shows, they don’t fit the description of any church-affiliated group and shouldn’t be allowed to pretend they’re one.
No matter what happens, though, it’s telling that a group that claims to be affiliated with the UMC has a past that’s rife with racism and discrimination. The only question is whether they have a right to be like that. But don’t forget what policies have already been adopted under that supposedly pious umbrella.