A small town overlooking the Little Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan had its beginnings as a campground getaway for Methodist families in the late 1800s, but 140 years later, the people who run the town are holding fast to its exclusionist roots and trying to keep non-Christians away.
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.
The town, its ruling Bay View Association, and a real estate company now face a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination against non-Christians.
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.
But how did things come to be this way in the small town of Bay View?
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.
Not uncharacteristic of the times, Bay View introduced its Christian-only rule at the same time it imposed a Whites-only stipulation to community membership. But despite dropping the racial requirement by the 1950s, the Christian rule stuck and has been strengthened ever since.
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.
“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.”