Judge: Religious test roils Chautauqua

“These rules prevent children and grandchildren of current owners from inheriting cottages because they do not meet the religious test, sometimes interrupting a family tradition of four and much as six generations.”

— Sarah Prescott, Plaintiffs attorney

“Bay View is a private, voluntary membership, organization. Our organization believes in working through disagreements concerning our bylaws outside of the court system.”

— Mike Spencer, Bay View Executive Director

Ohio is no stranger to the Chautauqua concept. Lakeside was one of the first Chautauquas in America and is one of a small number still in existence. Formed in 1873, it continues to have a strong affiliation with the Methodist Church and, like many Chautauquas, it maintains ownership of land and leases control of the land to individual owners on 99-year leases. The owners then construct cottages on those lands.

Other Chautauquas exist in other states, and one such Chautauqua, Bay Village in Michigan, has recently found itself in some legal trouble under both Michigan and federal law. Like Lakeside, Bay Village has 19th Century roots and Methodist affiliation. And like Lakeside, Bay Village maintains control over the land while allowing individual owners to build cottages and to pass those cottages down from family member to family member.

What has resulted in Bay Village being dragged into Court, however, is a requirement in the Chautauqua’s bylaws that places a religious test on ownership of Bay Village’s cottages. In order to transfer a cottage from one owner to another, the new owner must show that they are of a “Christian persuasion.” To do so, a pastor or church member must attest to the person’s membership and regular attendance at a Christian church.

Now, a group of persons has filed a federal lawsuit in Michigan against Bay Village. The plaintiffs include people who were denied the right to purchase cottages because they were not practicing Christians, and persons who were unable to inherit cottages from their parents — one because she had converted to Judaism. Some of the plaintiffs say they are adherents to other religions, while some say they practice no religion at all.

For their part, Bay Village’s defense (in news reports — they haven’t filed an answer to the complaint yet), is that they are a private, religious organization and therefore have the right to have whatever membership requirements they deem fit. They note that those requirements have been in place for more than a century.

The Plaintiffs, in their filed complaint, allege that Bay Village is not a private, religious organization, but rather has all the trappings of a governmental entity. That’s because Michigan law allows Chautauquas to levy taxes, engage in law enforcement functions, set speed limits, control truck traffic and engage in a host of other behaviors that are normally functions of government. And, the plaintiffs say, if Bay Village is a government entity, then the religious test is a violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Alternatively, the Plaintiffs argue that the Bay Village religious restriction violates the Federal Fair Housing Act. Among other things, that Act makes it illegal to “refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of … religion.” This claim would apply whether or not the plaintiffs can establish that Bay Village is a government entity.

The Chautauqua will now have to file a formal answer to the complaint and the federal trial court will begin to schedule hearings once that is done. It may be months, or even years, before a trial on the merits would occur, and could be several more years before appeals were complete.

In the meantime, the requirement remains in place, the Chautauqua continues to function, and similar organizations, like Lakeside here in Ohio, will continue to watch the case to see how the federal courts will resolve this unique intersection of the freedom of religion, the right to own and transfer property, and the question of whether this private organization is actually a government entity.

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David Hejmanowski

Contributing Columnist

David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.