Sunday, February 11, 2018

Bay View, Michigan... a place for Christians... and only Christians...

Every once in awhile, I read something that really surprises me.  Yesterday, I was surprised to learn from an article on The Guardian that there's a community in Michigan where only Christians are allowed to buy houses.  Bay View, Michigan is a lovely town on Michigan's Lower Peninsula where well-to-do Christian families have gathered for generations.  It started as a camping ground 140 years ago and has now evolved to a vacation spot where many people own summer homes.  Almost all of the homes in Bay View were built between 1875 and 1900 and feature unique architecture.

However, although non-Christians can rent in or just visit Bay View, Michigan, they are not allowed to purchase homes there.  Even if a non-Christian is an heir of a Bay View homeowner, he or she cannot take possession of the property.  Any prospective homeowners must prove that they are practicing members of a Christian church.  It's not enough to simply declare oneself a Christian, either.  Prospective buyers must prove that they regularly attend church by presenting a letter from a Christian pastor testifying that they are active participants in their church.

This rule is causing problems for some homeowners in Bay View.  For instance, one man, who claims he's "culturally Christian" but is married to a Jewish woman, says his wife and their children cannot inherit the Bay View home that has been in his family for generations.  Aside from the fact that he'd like to pass on his family heirloom to his children, this rule also makes it more difficult to sell the property to someone else.  Church attendance is not as common as it once was and neither do couples always marry within their religion... or marry at all, for that matter.

Bay View is one of the last remaining Chautaquas, which is a name given to Methodist camping communities that feature enrichment programs in the arts, religion, education, and recreation.  In the beginning, it was a cheap place to buy a cottage.  As the years have passed, the prices have gone up exponentially, making it cost prohibitive for many buyers to purchase property there.  Since the community is only open from May until October, homeowners are mainly people wealthy enough to own and maintain a second home.


It does look and sound like an idyllic place...

Due to the problems caused by the "Christians only" rule, a group of current and former homeowners have brought a lawsuit against Bay View Association, charging that the Christians only rule is illegal and unconstitutional.  Indeed, the Association's rules were originally rooted in racism and the idea that people who weren't white, non-Catholic, Christians were of questionable moral character.

Originally, Bay View's home buying requirements were that a person be over age 21, Caucasian, and of "good moral character".  In the 1940s, when racial tensions and anti-semitism were high, the stronger rules requiring Christian church participation were introduced, including more specific stipulations about race and exceptions to the rule.  For instance, servants and and employees who weren't white were allowed to live in the town.  From the 1960s until 1980, there was a quota on the number of Catholics were allowed to be members of the community.  The community of Catholics could not exceed ten percent and any additional Catholic applicants were rejected.  This policy was eventually abandoned in 1980.  

In 1986, the religious bylaws were strengthened.  Other Chautaquas in the area used to have similarly restrictive rules regarding religion.   After they relaxed the rules, critics say the communities changed, and not for the better.  More homes were purchased as rentals, which caused the neighborhood to feel more "transient".  The critics also say that those types of communities are available everywhere.  If a person wants to live in a secular community, they can easily find them.  It's not so easy to find communities where faith is a cornerstone as it is in Bay View.

I had never heard of Bay View, Michigan or Chautaquas before I read the article on The Guardian yesterday.  I'll admit, my first impression was surprise and disdain, especially as I read about the man whose wife and children can't inherit the family's cottage.  I am generally not a fan of homeowner's associations as a rule and, although I was raised Christian and consider myself such, I don't go to church anymore and wouldn't want to be forced to go to church in order to buy the summer home of my dreams.

I did give some thought to the perspective of the people who have been in Bay View for so many generations and built it into what it is today.  While I don't like the idea of living in a Christians only environment, I can kind of see why they would.  Their community is special and unique.  Opening it up to others will change that dynamic.  It will cease to be as unique as it once was, although it will always have that history.  Some people will look on that history as a negative.

I shared this story on Facebook yesterday and I suspect many people who commented only read the headline, which was pretty provocative.  A couple of people dismissed Bay View Association's rules as outright "bigotry", which I don't think they necessarily are.  I think the rules started out of bigotry and might be maintained because the association wishes to keep the community special.  On the other hand, it's pretty hard to justify such exclusionary policies in today's society.  Perhaps it's time Bay View, Michigan evolved with the times.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the lawsuit, especially given our current political environment.  2017 might not have been the best year to sue for non-exclusionary policies in Bay View.  However, there's always a chance that things will change dramatically in the coming years, particularly given how very unpopular Donald Trump is.

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