Bay View community grapples with suit alleging housing discrimination

Jul 26, 2018

Bay View is a small summer resort community near Petoskey in Northern Michigan. Residents in the Norman Rockwell-esque setting are facing a lawsuit that they say has split the community.

That suit involves a religious requirement for cottage ownership that has pushed some residents out of the community and left others in doubt about whether they’ll be able to stay.

But, some residents say, that religious requirement is essential to maintaining what makes Bay View special.

Walking through Bay View can feel a little like stepping back in time.

The community is made up of over 400 Victorian-style cottages, two hotels, and a small campus, which residents say is home to the oldest music festival in the country.

But some residents say Bay View isn’t as welcoming as it appears.

Don Duquette is a cottage owner in Bay View and part of the group behind the suit.                         

“Right now we’re living in a community where Jews are not welcome, Muslims are not welcome, Christians who identify as Christians but don't attend an active church, they can’t buy a cottage.”

Duquette said the religious requirement became part of the communities bylaws in the 1940’s. 

“As a condition of membership a person had to be of Caucasian race and of Christian persuasion. And as many people know back in the day, Christian persuasion is a euphemism for not Jewish.”

Duquette said while the race requirement is no longer part of the community, the religious requirement has remained. Today would-be cottage owners have to provide a signed letter from a pastor saying they actively attend a Christian church.

John Agria is with the group behind the suit, although he’s no longer a member of the community.

"We call our home in Petoskey, which is on the Bear River, Bay view in exile."

He said his daughters weren’t interested in attending church.

“This is where we moved when we were forced really to sell our cottage because our daughters did not qualify as members, therefore, they could not inherit.”

Agria’s story is not unique. Other members have raised concerns about their own children, who have married into different faith practices or have moved away from the church. Their cottages remain in limbo.

“Bay View is really rejecting its children, or at least the children that don’t toe the line that their parents would like them to toe.”

But some members say the religious requirement is what makes Bay View special.

Dick Crossland is a 75 year resident of Bay View. His grandchildren are the 5th generation of his family to come here. He said Christianity has made this community what it is.

“Not that people who aren’t Christians aren’t good people, but we do have a sense of community and Christianity here that I think could be lost over time if we change.”

Crossland said parents of kids moving away from their Christian faith have asked him to keep fighting to keep the requirement.

“Our kids aren’t attending church and they can’t buy a cottage and please keep pressing to keep the Christian membership requirement because we think that’ll be one incentive for our kids to go ahead and go to church.”

Bay View plaintiffs held an informational session recently, hoping to plead their case to other residents.

The night of the session attendees pack a conference room to hear Sarah Prescott, the lawyer for the group bringing the suit, outline the case.

Using three giant boards plastered with sections of the Fair Housing Act, Prescott goes line by line, deconstructing why she believes Bay View’s religious requirement violates the act.

“What Bay Views bylaws provide and the religious test that Bay View has been running is pretty clearly, I would say quite clearly, flagrantly, contrary to state and federal housing laws.”

Some in attendance, like Eric Breisach, worried that taking the case to court will lead to Bay View being classified as a village or city, in other words, a government agency.

“Which means we could have nothing to do with the establishment of religion, which I believe would prohibit us from hiring a worship director, having Christian programming, because that programming is mostly paid for by assessments on each cottage.”

Prescott, however, claimed she offered to settle out of court with Bay View on the terms that the religious tests would be removed but they could keep their non-governmental status.

“But we were told negotiations over, negotiations over. I said okay if that’s not good enough for you I am confused, truly and honestly, and I’ll see you in court.”

Lawyers for Bay View did not respond to our request for comment.

Some residents, like Jeb Brown, saw the whole session as an attack.

“Basically this was a thinly veiled threat to the community and we need to assess how much validity there is to the threat.”

But, John Agria said, Bay View is having a long-overdue conversation about change.

“For these people who are fairly conservative in their Christianity and their political beliefs the world is changing and the world is changing in a way they’re not comfortable with. So if we can’t maintain these values elsewhere we can certainly maintain them here.”

But, Agria said, opening the community up is the only way forward for Bay View.

The suit against Bay View is scheduled to be heard in federal court on July 30th.