A large house behind a threatening-looking iron gate
Photo illustration by Dersu Rhodes from an image via Flickr user Pat (Cletch) Williams

This Community Is Tearing Itself Apart Over Non-Christians Owning Houses

Bay View, Michigan, is an idyllic place that has been consumed by an unlikely 21st-century debate: Should non-Christians be allowed to vote and buy property?
October 25, 2018, 5:05am

July 7 was a clear day in northern Michigan. Late in the evening, Jeremy Sheaffer climbed onto the roof of the cottage on Bluff Street, watched the sun slowly drop over Lake Michigan, and wept. Sheaffer’s grandparents and great-grandmother first came to Bay View, a picturesque summer community of some 450 Victorian cottages, in 1917. In the century since six generations of the family tree became entwined with the place: Sheaffer’s grandparents had five children, 20 grandchildren, and dozens of great-grandchildren. By now the extended family is scattered around the country; in the summer, cousins and nieces return to Michigan, renewing family ties and creating their own memories.

Sheaffer, now a 52-year-old father of two based in Maine, where he directs a conservation organization, doesn’t actually have a first recollection of Bay View, he said. “It’s just something that has always been there.” He made his first friends in the community’s youth club, spent glorious adolescent afternoons sailing on the bay, had his heart broken by the swing. “There’s a memory there on every corner, every lamp post,” he said. “I’m closer with Bay View than any other place that I’ve ever been.”

But recently Sheaffer was preparing for the possibility of severing ties. This summer, for the first time in memory, he didn’t bring his wife and boys to Michigan for their beloved annual trip. Instead he came by himself for a week, to execute the sale of the Bluff Street cottage that had belonged to his parents, who both died last year. More daunting, he was also considering selling his portion of the cottage next door that he shares with his siblings—renouncing his stake in the community that’s defined so much of his life. “To be completely out—I don’t know what that’s going to feel like,” he said. “I can say that without Bay View a huge part of my life, a huge part of the world that I grew up in and have known all my life, would be gone.”

The problem is that Sheaffer’s wife is Jewish.

For over a century the “Chautauqua on Lake Michigan,” perched on a hillside overlooking a particularly scenic expanse of coastline, has served as a local cultural center and sacred retreat for families like Sheaffer’s, who mostly have been visiting for generations. But for the past decade idyllic, serene Bay View has been embroiled in a bitter internal conflict that’s sharply divided the tight-knit community and—because of its echoes of the ugly housing discrimination fights of past decades—resonated far beyond, tapping a nerve in the country’s culture wars and the broader debate about the role of religion in American life. The core of this dispute is that while anyone is welcome to visit Bay View or participate in its events—and many outsiders do—for decades only Christians have been allowed to actually own cottages and act as voting community members. In early August, after years of escalating tension, members voted to finally amend the bylaws to allow non-Christians to own property, but the dispute remains ongoing. A group of plaintiffs, arguing the new provisions still amount to religious discrimination, are forging ahead with a federal lawsuit against the Bay View Association.

“We feel very much like the crusaders in the civil rights litigation in the South or women’s rights issues,” Don Duquette, who’s been leading the effort, said. “Over time, that you just keep pushing hard to see that equality emerges.”

At its peak in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Chautauqua movement, a Protestant continuing-education initiative characterized by lectures, concerts, and other entertainment, was a cultural force with hundreds of seasonal locations and tens of millions of devotees. The original Chautauqua, in western New York, remains a prominent destination, with its own opera company, golf course, and literary programming; a dozen or so remaining others are also spread around the country.

Bay View was founded in 1875 as part of that movement by a group of Michigan Methodists who convinced a railroad company to provide the land. Its early 20th century Victorian-style cottages remain strikingly intact: With a central quad, post office, chapel, auditorium, and other buildings, the community resembles a charming small college campus, and serves as an important cultural center in its own right. Along with various intellectual and vocational courses—Roman cooking, Tai Chi, Chomsky—this past summer’s offerings included a lecture by the Yale constitutional law professor Akhil Amar and a Ben Folds concert.

“It’s got a nice reputation as being a special place,” Larry Massie, a Michigan historian, said, though he added it could also be somewhat insular. “Elitist—I think that’d be a better word than snotty.”

Bay View was clearly established as a Protestant retreat. Members opposed to changing the requirements point to its mission statement outlining the centrality of Christian values, and to historical documents that suggest the founders’ religious intent. “We did not enter this wilderness to make money, nor build a city of pleasure,” one 1900 brochure reads. “We came to worship God, to establish a center of Christian influence.”

The membership battle is not about prejudice or bigotry, they insist, but about preserving the community’s Christian identity. “It has been a closed community and, more than that, it’s been a place where the spirit of God has been present because His people have been present,” one member, Marcia-Anne Dunbar, said. “That’s what makes Bay View a special place.”

Yet others see an expansion of Bay View’s demographics as a fair and necessary evolution—and believe the movement of Christianity is flexible enough to include even non-believers. “Some of us think that Jesus’s message—the Christian message—is one of openness and inclusiveness,” Duquette said. “And not dividing into smaller and smaller sects.”

Duquette, a now-retired University of Michigan law professor with a thick gray mustache and a gentle demeanor, discovered Bay View in the early 1980s, when he was looking for a quiet place to write. After renting for a couple seasons, he easily produced the minister’s letter of recommendation required for would-be members—he was always a regular churchgoer—and bought a cottage with a wide wraparound porch on Moss Avenue. He and his wife Kathy, who studied historic preservation, fell deeply in love with the place. Kathy now serves as president of the Woman’s Council; Duquette, a former board member, organizes a popular annual Fourth of July Declaration of Independence reading. “What really sets it apart,” he said, “is the community.”

At the time he joined, Duquette liked Bay View’s Christian association, he said, but he didn’t give the membership requirements much thought until the mid-00s, when the dispute started catching fire. One member, poking around in the archives, discovered that Bay View’s explicit Christian-only requirement didn’t originate with its founding but was actually added around 1942, when the board adopted a resolution that members must be “of the white race and a Christian.” (By 1959 Bay View had dropped the race requirement; from the 1960s to 1980s it implemented a 10 percent quota on Catholics. Bylaws later changed “Christian” to “Christian persuasion.”)

Faced with evidence of a clearly racist past, residents started talking. Some Jewish or atheist spouses had never really felt comfortable. A fourth-generation visitor who converted to Judaism as an adult had been rejected for membership. Residents discovered archival photos of minstrel shows performed in the theatre where they now attend Sunday services and classical music concerts. “And then we have people in that same stage with blackface?” Duquette said. “It makes your heart drop like a stone.”

By 2009 a movement was underway to change the bylaws. The discovery of the added racist language seemed like a “smoking gun,” Sheaffer said—evidence of obvious discrimination that would be easy to reverse. Instead it set off a protracted battle over the future of Bay View.

Duquette and others collected hundreds of signatures, asking the board to convene a committee on the issue. It was a nonstarter: Amid staunch opposition from a board member, trustees passed a resolution to remain neutral. In 2011 a slim majority voted to keep the Christian requirement. The next spring the board did convene a special committee, which produced a stalemate. A 2013 vote found a slim majority in favor of a change, but not the required two-thirds. So did a 2016 vote. Proponents of change, increasingly dismayed at what they saw as both an immoral and likely illegal stance from their community, filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, then the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The federal housing discrimination suit, filed in July 2017, was a last resort.

“We didn’t want to embarrass the community. We didn’t want the press,” Duquette said. “We love this place and we want to see it succeed. But eventually we were left with no options—there was no way we were going to get a two-thirds vote.”

The suit, unsurprisingly, thrust private Bay View into a harsh media spotlight; this May, as the case proceeded, the ACLU aligned with the plaintiffs. “Fifty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, Bay View’s policies seem stuck in the past, harkening back to an era where blatant and discriminatory restrictions on homeownership were commonplace,” Rebecca Guterman, a paralegal with the organization, wrote in a memo. “Moreover, under state law, Bay View has significant authority akin to a governmental body... and so must honor the Constitution as cities and towns do. It cannot put the government stamp of approval on practicing Christians over all others.”

From the beginning, the saga had consumed the community by the lake. At an early public hearing, Sheaffer recounted, residents packed into Voorhies Hall for an open mic forum that lasted hours. While most spoke respectfully, some residents worried aloud that a synagogue would be built, or that Bay View could end up resembling Dearborn, the Michigan city known for its large Arab and Muslim populations. “That’s the one that just hits you between the eyes,” Sheaffer said. “‘Oh God, here’s what we’re up against.’”

Mostly, though, the battle was intense but civil. The lead-up to each vote resembled a political campaign, with each side dropping fliers and sending email missives. Still, as the dispute wore on, decades-long friendships became strained. Some families, like Sheaffer’s—his cousin is a board member opposed to the change—were also divided.

“We have people—I’m one of ‘em—with battle fatigue,” Dick Crossland, who led the group opposed to the change, said. “It’s been going on every summer here for ten years.”

Crossland, a retired lighting company CEO, has visited Bay View every summer except one since he was two years old. He’s still close with friends he made as a kid in the summer club programs, and remembers learning to play bridge in the old rec building and mischievously ringing Bay View’s church bells. When his daughters were growing up, the family moved often, but Bay View was a constant. “This was like home,” he said, rocking slowly on his porch swing on a perfect late summer afternoon. “This was the anchor.”

From Crossland’s perspective, the Christian-only requirements were always transparent. Jews and other non-Christians knew the rules; membership, of course, is voluntary. “If you choose to be another religion, well, why do you want to be part of a Christian community? Why change the community for a few people who changed their faith?”

And where proponents of the change are adamant they’re not trying to take religion out of Bay View, only to make it more inclusive, Crossland sees a slippery slope. “I do not believe they’re malicious,” he said of the group advocating for inclusion. “But I don’t think they’ve thought it through.” Non-Christians could potentially vote down fees that go to Christian worship services, he points out, or take additional legal action. Bay View, he fears, could end up essentially secular, like most other Chautuquas have, or, with increased turnover, lose its unique sense of community altogether.

“It’s not that they’re bad people, but we’re going to change Bay View from what it was,” he said . And once you open the door to change, who knows where it could end up. “I just thought Bay View was unique,” he said of his decision to get involved. “You could break it if you tried to fix it.”

This summer’s vote was billed as a kind of compromise that would finally end the dispute. The “Christian persuasion” and minister-letter requirements would be removed, although a new amendment would require prospective members to agree to “respect the principles of the United Methodist Church” and support Bay View’s Christian mission. It would also add a requirement that a majority of the nine-person board is Methodist.

On August 4, 483 members voted in favor, 214 against—a 69 percent majority.

Even change proponents, skeptical that two-thirds of Bay View members could ever agree, were taken aback at the result. “A great deal of relief that there’s a path to leave this to my family,” Sheaffer said of his reaction. “A great deal of relief that 69 percent of the members voted for change... It felt like we’re not alone in this anymore.”

But the new language, the plaintiff group argues, still imposes a religious test on prospective members, only through less explicit language. “Our group endorsed the proposal, because it was moving in the right direction,” Duquette said. “But we said from the very beginning that this would not resolve the lawsuit.”

After the vote the court requested an additional briefing; the case remains ongoing. The plaintiffs are optimistic the suit will finally allow Bay View to move towards a long-overdue equality. “I think we’re fighting for the soul of the place,” Duquette said. “I didn’t expect this to take ten years, I must say that. But I have never doubted that this is where Bay View would end up.”

Crossland believes Bay View could come together again after the vote, and says he’s reconciled to the membership change. But the lawsuit, he said, “scares the hell out of me.” He worries the court could impose some unforeseen drastic action, or that the process could bankrupt Bay View. Mostly though, he worries about the future of a community he loves. “We’re just trying to retain the character and the uniqueness of Bay View as a Christian community,” he said. “Maybe you can’t do it. Maybe the culture is going to force itself in, and you’re never going to be able to keep those things the way they were.”

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Trevor Bach is a journalist based in Detroit.