The Michigan town where only Christians are allowed to buy housesThe Guardian
February 9, 2018
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 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?
He can't will his property to his Jewish wife
This very question has become a painful issue for Jeremy Sheaffer, a fifth-generation Bay Viewer.
Sheaffer, 50, spent his summers in Bay View. He forged lifelong friendships here and has always considered it the place where he had roots, particularly as his family moved a lot when he was growing up.
But the environmental NGO worker says his relationship with the place he calls "home base" has reached a crisis point.
"I have no way to legally will my cottage to my wife or my children," says Sheaffer of his summer home.
Sheaffer, who defines himself as culturally Christian, is married to a Jewish woman who cannot inherit his home because of her religion. Under the existing rules, their two children, aged 11 and 14, themselves sixth-generation Bay Viewers, would also be barred from inheriting their father's property because of their mixed religious makeup.
Undeniably, religious self-segregation is at the core of the everyday practice of many faiths.
The wish to assemble with like-minded religious folk, maintain tradition and provide a steady Christian perspective in a changing world appears to be at the heart of the arguments levied by Bay View residents who believe the rules should stay intact.
The first amendment prohibits the establishment of a religion by government, but within the same paragraph also provides for the right of people to freely assemble. This could appear confusing in this case.
But Bay View is not simply a Christian club, or a church. While the governing Bay View association enjoys 501(C)(3), or charity, status through an affiliation with the Methodist church, the homes on its land are sold at a profit by individuals on the marketplace. Four percent of all Bay View home sales are directed to association coffers, and current properties are listed between $120,000 and $1m.
In the first half of the 20th century, racially and religiously restrictive covenants (which restricted home sales to specific groups) were created not just to maintain cultural hegemony in predominantly white, Protestant American neighborhoods, but also to protect the financial value of houses. This was based on the government-backed, racist idea that the influx of non-whites would bring property value down.
Racially restrictive covenants were ruled unenforceable by the supreme court in 1948, almost exactly 70 years ago, kicking off an era of civil rights legal change.
But should religious restrictive covenant be interpreted any differently?
Racist roots in the midwest
Historically, religious exclusion has repeatedly gone hand-in-hand with racial exclusion in the US. It is difficult to know what the exact motivations of voting board members were in the 1940s when the Christian requirement was first introduced.
What was first uncovered through archival research by the then Bay View member David Krause is that through a series of calculated tweaks in bylaws between 1942 and 1947, the board, led by a lawyer from Indiana, seemingly violated its own articles of association and introduced new membership requirements, stipulating that members should be "of the white race and the Christian persuasion".
Ralph Jernegan, the lawyer leading the charge, doggedly worked over five years to have the Christian-only and white-only clauses written into Bay View rules. Jernegan headed his own law practice and was a prominent member of his Indiana community of Mishawaka.
Matt Pehl, a professor of history at Augustana University, says he is not surprised to hear about the introduction of such policies in Bay View during this time. Racist as well as anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic viewpoints were espoused openly by respected members of the community throughout the midwest, he says.
Indiana as well as Michigan were hotbeds for the Ku Klux Klan starting in the 1920s, he says, and Henry Ford, the great local industrialist, was a renowned antisemite.
"The Klan at this point would talk about 'the threat on white civilization'. What's important in that phrase is not just the white part, it's the civilization part. What they mean by threat on civilization is a threat on Protestant civilization," Pehl says.
Jernegan's community, Mishawaka, was home to a Ku Klux Klan chapter starting in 1927. At the very least, this means that Jernegan lived in a cultural context where, as Pehl puts it, KKK beliefs and concerns were "widely shared and strongly endorsed".
As some members in the 1940s were fighting to make Bay View more closed, others were putting time and effort into helping Jewish Europeans escape and emigrate to the US.
Glenn Stevens, still speaking to me on his porch, when challenged by his friend Sophie McGee about the racial component of the original exclusionary bylaw, responds that history corrects those kinds of wrongdoings, separating out the two forms of exclusion as falling on a right and a wrong side.
Nevertheless, documents from the time reveal a spirit of white, Protestant safeguarding. Employees or servants of all backgrounds were allowed to stay, but anybody else not fitting the white, Christian stipulations was given one night before being sent on their way.
Sheaffer, who now faces a conundrum based on his own immediate family's mixed religious makeup, says he always knew about the rules excluding non-Christians but never imagined they would be upheld.
"Everyone knew about it. It was viewed as one of those arcane laws put on the books way back when. I think there was a sense that it would just take care of itself."
'There are a lot of other places … God bless you if you want to go'
Dick Crossland, a retired consultant who has been a leading voice for the preservation of membership rules, says he is saddened by the way in which the opposing group has portrayed the association and its board as bigoted.
"We accept anyone that wants to join the same way that Christ accepts anyone as Christian. We don't discriminate against anything that you can't change," he says.
The debate has been hurting the community, says Crossland, who added he would have been willing to work on a "legacy solution" for Sheaffer's family's case - but not for the broader public.
Crossland says he has visited other Chautauquas that have opened up to non-Christians, and such communities have suffered as a result, with increasing numbers of houses purchased as rentals, resulting in a more transient community that frays its fundamental makeup.
"It's always been some place apart," says Crossland, who is opposed to removing the "core foundation".
"There are a lot of other places where if you want a more secular resort, a place that looks more like the United Nations, then God bless you if you want to go."
Mandela Sheaffer, Jeremy Sheaffer's nephew, 26, has "only fond memories" of growing up in Bay View. "Time stops in Bay View. Everything you go back to is the same. It's like a time capsule."
But as he's grown older, he says, it's become harder to digest the exclusion of non-Christians by the community. As a biracial kid, Sheaffer was one of the very few non-white children to attend Bay View's campus every year.
Well aware that up until the late 1950s he wouldn't have been allowed to stay there, Sheaffer says even if they got rid of the white-only policy a while ago, it is no coincidence the community has remained almost entirely white.
Tisa Wenger, a professor of American religious history at Yale University, explains that it is difficult to tease out the religious and racial components of this case.
She says much of the mid-century history of Bay View matches national trends, with racial segregation ending and white people doubling down on religious restrictions and creating private organizations in which they could control membership intake.
"They don't have to be Trump voters to be wanting to protect a certain enclave. A lot of white Americans are deliberately blind to this," she says.
Wenger explains that research for her recent book on religious freedom revealed that "appeals made by white American Christians for religious liberty often end up being ways in which to advance white privilege".
William Crawford, a professor and third-generation Bay Viewer in his 50s and who became a member so that his children could benefit, says he is embarrassed about the membership policy.
He says Bay View's "dirty little secret" is that many members and their families are not actually practicing Christians. This is confirmed to me by other members as I visit Bay View.
Crawford speculates that many people "like the idea of tradition" more than they care about their neighbors being proven active Christians. He ponders whether what is going on is "not just a spiritual issue, it's a socioeconomic issue".
"The cottages used to be cheap. It wasn't a place for wealthy people. That's changed. Now it is cost-prohibitive to be up there. You are not allowed to be up there past a certain time in the year. To keep a second home is not feasible for most people."
Sitting in front of his old piano, Glenn Stevens, who does not believe in changing policies, bursts into song. The melody is Smiles, which I am later told was written in Bay View. Sophie McGee - his lifelong friend who wants to change the policy - spontaneously joins in the singing.
The song sounds almost painfully nostalgic, and for a moment, it feels like the three of us are transported to another time.
Months after I first talk to him, as Michigan has been covered in a thick blanket of snow, Jeremy Sheaffer calls me in early February. He tells me his parents have both died since we last spoke, making the issue of whether he should maintain ties (and ownership of property) in Bay View ever more pressing.
He reminds me of a public letter his mother wrote, aged 87, this July - during what turned out to be her last summer. The letter reads:
Bay View Association turned down repeated requests for interview and comment.