People who summer at Bay View, a United Methodist-affiliated community in northern Michigan, agree it’s a bit of heaven on earth.
Open for residence from May to October, the historic retreat offers natural beauty, Victorian architecture and a stimulating array of concerts, forums and worship services.
Some families have come to Bay View for generations, and many friendships have been forged and deepened there.
“Our lives are marked by the seasons at Bay View,” said the Rev. David Kidd, a retired United Methodist elder who, with wife Ada, is a longtime cottage owner.
But idyllic Bay View has seen long, simmering conflict among residents over bylaws restricting cottage ownership to Christians. The fight escalated last July into a federal lawsuit claiming Bay View is not a religious group but a community with governing powers whose policy violates anti-discrimination laws.
With the lawsuit has come unflattering press coverage, including a recent article in the Guardian newspaper of England.
Kidd is among the United Methodist residents who believe the ownership policy contradicts the denomination’s values of religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation.
“It’s very embarrassing to me,” said Kidd, who isn’t part of the lawsuit but supports it.
Meanwhile, the Bay View Association trustee board defending against the lawsuit is led by United Methodists, including president Jon Chism.
“For over 100 years, our private and voluntary organization has remained true to the principles of our founding and mission to be an institution in which Christian values and traditions are fundamental,” he said in a written response to questions submitted by United Methodist News Service.
The United Methodist Church is not a party in the suit, but the nature of its relationship to Bay View is one of the contested issues. The denomination is invariably mentioned in news coverage, not least because the defending party is officially called the Bay View Association of The United Methodist Church.
Michigan Area Bishop David Alan Bard, a non-voting Bay View board member, was concerned enough to issue a Feb. 14 statement asking prayers for reconciliation.
He’s not taking sides, hoping to help with healing once the litigation ends. But in an interview he said: “I abhor religious discrimination. I do not think it represents the best of our Methodist heritage.”
Bay View is on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, bordering Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay. The community consists of more than 440 cottages and 30 public buildings, and enjoys National Historic Landmark status.
Michigan Methodists held a camp meeting on the site in 1876, and by the next summer 20 cottages had been built.
Bay View soon joined the Chautauqua movement, with its four pillars of religion, recreation, education and the performing arts. Summer Assembly programs in early decades brought Helen Keller, Frances Willard, William Jennings Bryan and Booker T. Washington.
Bay View has had ups and downs, but is enjoying a vital period, including growing attendance for events.
“Bay View remains a vibrant summer resort where our residents, their families and visitors come to experience our diverse programming in a beautiful setting,” Chism said.
But the lawsuit is the latest development in years of internal conflict over who can own a cottage.
Bay View welcomes all to its premises and programs, and doesn’t restrict who can rent; but bylaws confine cottage ownership and association membership to those of the “Christian persuasion.”
Successful applicants must go through an interview and provide a reference from their pastor or another designated church leader.
The Rev. Stan Sutton, a retired United Methodist elder and cottage owner, wants the policy changed, but as membership chair has enforced it.
“We even had a member of the faculty of a United Methodist college that we had to defer because he didn’t have any church attendance,” Sutton said. “He had a sterling recommendation from the chaplain of the school, but he didn’t list any church.”
Marjorie Bayes, another advocate for change, is an 83-year-old retired Smith College professor whose family roots at Bay View go back a century.
In her younger years, she said, “We just didn’t pay much attention to what the membership was doing and what the restrictions were.”
But Bayes’ late husband was Jewish, and once married to him she became acutely aware.
“He couldn’t co-own my cottage, and he couldn’t inherit it, neither he nor his children (from a prior marriage),” said Bayes, a Unitarian Universalist who was brought up Methodist. “That was an eye-opener.”
Sutton has a son with a Jewish wife, and they're raising their children Jewish. The retired pastor is unhappy that those grandchildren wouldn’t be able to inherit the cottage under the current policy.
Beyond that, he sees restricting ownership to Christians as contrary to his denomination's values.
"It's against everything I learned about in the theology of Wesley and the United Methodist tradition," said Sutton, who with 14 other clergy cottage owners, including the late United Methodist Bishop Emerson Colaw, signed a statement in 2013 supporting a change.
The Rev. George Dauler, a retired Presbyterian minister and longtime cottage owner, is on the other side.
He’s willing to accommodate owners who want to bequeath a cottage to non-Christian family members, but defends Christians having their own community.
“If we said, ʽLet's open our membership to anybody, we'd go right off the track, right in the ditch,” he said. “Bay View would remain beautiful, with a lot of neat stuff — the beach and the programs — but I doubt we'd be anything but a resort.”
Change advocates say their research shows Bay View didn’t restrict cottage ownership to Christians until the 1940s, when a “whites only” provision entered too, though that was dropped in 1959.
Bay View residents describe a gathering movement that has used various strategies to try to lift the cottage ownership restriction. In 2013, about 52 percent of residents voted for change, short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the bylaws.
Some residents sued in state court, challenging the super-majority requirement. They lost.
The federal lawsuit was brought by the Bay View Inclusiveness Group, which represents about 50 families and includes cottage owners and others who would like to own but can’t, said plaintiffs’ attorney Sarah Prescott.
The suit argues that Bay View’s formal recognition by Michigan in 1889, under the state’s Summer Resort Act, included the granting of certain governmental powers — and that those are reflected in Bay View’s regulation of everything from cottage modifications to pet ownership.
“As an entity invested with powers and duties of government, Bay View is bound by the constitutional and statutory prohibitions against the establishment of religion and against religious discrimination,” the suit says.
Specifically, the plaintiffs hold that the policy violates federal housing laws and Michigan anti-discrimination laws.
Chism, speaking for the board, describes Bay View as a private association and stresses Bay View’s founding by ministers committed to creating a culture “rooted in the cause of religion and morality.”
“Although we are unable to comment on specific allegations due to the pending litigation, we do not believe the membership policy violates state or federal law,” he said.
The suit may be affected by or even turn on the nature of Bay View’s relationship to The United Methodist Church.
Bay View has never had a formal affiliation agreement with the denomination, and Michigan Area bishops have not been voting board members, rarely even attending meetings.
“I see it primarily as a historic relationship. We really have no role in governance,” Bard said.
But Bay View’s bylaws require that 60 percent of the trustee board be United Methodist. Bay View also has 501c3 non-profit status through the denomination, which the General Council on Finance and Administration approved because of the community’s relationship with the West Michigan Conference.
A court-ordered mediation failed last month, so the lawsuit goes forward.
“We feel like we’re fighting for the soul of this place,” said Don Duquette, a retired University of Michigan law professor and longtime cottage owner who supports the lawsuit. “We love it too much to turn our back on this one little dark side of the community.”
Sam Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.