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.”) Until now, prospective buyers had to include a recommendation letter from a pastor.
Defenders might say that private organizations are allowed to set their own membership rules, disgraceful as they might be to outsiders. And the Bay View Association is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, so it’s not subject to the same rules as public places.
But according to a lawsuit filed last year by the Bay View Chautauqua Inclusiveness Group, the housing association was guilty of violating the First Amendment, the federal Fair Housing Act, Michigan’s Constitution, and civil rights laws.
They argued 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.”
In response to the lawsuit, the Bay View Association said there was already a way for the by-laws to change. Members could propose new rules and everyone could vote on them. That just hadn’t happened yet. Furthermore, as a private organization, they were under no obligation to change the rules to accommodate the law.
This past May, we learned that a federal official from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that the Bay View Association “has not met its burden to prove it is exempt from the federal Fair Housing Act.” In other words, the most important piece of armor for the cottage town now had a major crack in it. The only defense they really had was that they were a private religious organization, and HUD was saying that wasn’t the case at all.
With their backs against the wall, the Bay View Association just announced that the requirement that members be Christian has finally been rescinded. The rule was proposed earlier this month, and about 70% of members voted in favor of it.
What that means for the lawsuit, however, isn’t entirely clear.
Sarah Prescott, a Northville attorney representing the inclusiveness group, said: “It is a step in the right direction, but still not compliant with the law. We will be pursuing full compliance with federal and state law.”
What problems still remain?
[Lawsuit plaintiff Don] Duquette and other members oppose a requirement that five of the nine members of the resort’s ruling board must be Methodist.
They’re also worried the board could interpret the new rules in a way that could restrict membership. They also fret the ban could be reinstituted in the future.
The solution, they believe, would be a consent decree where the board agrees to a court order that it isn’t exempt from the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination.
All of that makes sense. This was an important vote, but it’s possible that Bay View members just want everyone off their backs, and when no one’s paying attention anymore, they’ll go right back to their old ways. I’m not saying that’s what’s going on, only that it’s theoretically possible. Better to shut that door permanently.