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Cabin Fever

A gay couple is banned from a Methodist camp adn the battle lines are drawn.

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By Elana Seifert

The United Methodist Camp Ground Association, 32 acres just east of the intersection of Algonquin and Des Plaines River roads in Des Plaines, was established nearly a century and a half ago, when thousands of Methodists would travel to the site to hear evangelists preach, pitching tents for two weeks each summer. One hundred cottages and several community buildings, including a cafe and several small shops, have since been put up. "It's like a small town here," says Marjorie Cilly, president of the nonprofit association's board of trustees. "It's like a different century here. People invite you to sit on their porches and talk, which we don't have time for anymore in the suburbs."

Six years ago Nannette Graham and her husband, Bill, bought a cottage at the campground, and she suggested that the association make an effort to diversify, since the cottagers were almost all white. "I grew up in Alabama," says Graham, who lives in Chicago most of the year, "and race issues have always been important to me. The Methodist church is very diverse, but unfortunately we're still very segregated. I said we should make it known to different ethnic congregations that we had cottages available. I was so excited about my idea, but some of the other cottagers were just furious. After that we were shunned. I more or less decided that I wasn't going to get involved with these people. I thought, I've got a cute little cottage here, a place to be with myself and my friends. But I kept to myself. I swore I'd never be involved in anything like this again."

Then last summer a gay couple, Bob Carroll and Russell Elenz, rented a cottage at the campground, where they stayed with their adopted son. "I was told by several people that at a Cottagers Club [a social organization] meeting, someone got up and accused me of being a pedophile," says Carroll, a schoolteacher who lives in Evanston. "I said I wanted to confront that person. The board member who heard it told me she heard it from other people, and said she'd bring them to me, as the Bible instructs. But she didn't. When I pursued her she said I was stalking her." A guest of another resident held a candlelight vigil outside the couple's house. "He said God was grieving because there were homosexuals on the campground," says Carroll. "We both confronted him. But every time we couldn't get through. We probably should have called the police."

According to Carroll, when he and Elenz asked to rent a cottage for this summer they were turned down by the board. "Suddenly it was personal," says Nannette Graham. She sent letters to the board; to Bishop Joseph Sprague, who oversees the Methodist church's Northern Illinois Conference; and other NIC officials. She and her husband also told the board that they were giving Carroll and Elenz keys to their cottage and would put up a pink neon sign in the window that read "Reconciling Cottage--Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Transgenders Welcome." The board responded with a letter citing the association's bylaws and rules and regulations for cottage owners--individuals own the cottages, but the association owns the land, so the cottagers are subject to its regulations. Those regulations state that cottages are for the owners' personal use only and that guests must be approved by the board. If the Grahams didn't want to abide by the rules, the letter went on, the board would be forced to sell their cottage.

The Grahams refused to take the sign down. On June 4 the board sent them another letter saying that their defiance had prompted the board to transfer ownership of the cottage back to the association, which would sell it as the Grahams' agent. "After June 20 all locks will be changed," the letter stated. The Grahams sent a letter back saying, "In accordance with the Social Principles in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church...we have decided to stay on the campground to make a stand."

The Grahams told the story to their pastor in Chicago, B.J. Birkhahn-Rommelfanger of the Ravenswood Fellowship United Methodist Church. Birkhahn-Rommelfanger introduced a resolution at the Northern Illinois Conference's annual meeting on June 8 that called for an immediate investigation by the NIC's Board of Church and Society, an appointed body charged with interpreting the Social Principles, into charges that Carroll, Elenz, and the Grahams had been discriminated against. The resolution stated, "These allegations, if true, would constitute discrimination in housing based on sexual orientation, a violation of the Social Principles." The Board of Church and Society agreed to investigate and called for a fact-finding hearing on July 2. It also barred the association's board from taking further action against the Grahams until the issue was resolved.

The July 2 hearing, conducted by a committee of the Board of Church and Society, was civil but animated. "It's not a trial," said Kiyo Yoshimura, an NIC lay delegate who cosponsored Birkhahn-Rommelfanger's resolution. "But it feels very much like one." Carroll, Elenz, and the Grahams testified, and attorney John Juergensmeyer testified for the board of trustees. Birkhahn-Rommelfanger cited passages from the Book of Discipline supporting "the basic rights of all persons to equal access to housing," "equal rights regardless of sexual orientation," the entitlement of "all persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status or sexual orientation...to have their human and civil rights ensured," and support for "freedoms of speech, religion, assembly...and petition for redress of grievances." The Board of Church and Society is scheduled to hold a second hearing--the date hasn't been set--and submit a report to the Northern Illinois Conference in November. The board's decision will be binding--if it also decides that it has jurisdiction over the association.

At the hearing Juergensmeyer argued that though the association's 140-year-old charter granted it corporate status for the purpose of holding "camp meetings under the direction and authority of churches in connection with the Rock River Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church," the NIC's predecessor, it is now an independent religious organization--hence not subject to the NIC's authority but free to make its own decisions on who gets to rent or own property at the campground and free to enforce its bylaws as it sees fit.

"People will always find a legal means, a technicality to discriminate," says Birkhahn-Rommelfanger. "That's historically what's happened, whether the issue is racial or gender or other discrimination. Saying there wasn't compliance with bylaws, for instance, is a pretense." She goes on, "There's no dispute in this case. One can believe homosexuals are persons of sacred worth and also believe their lifestyle is incompatible with church teachings. The Social Principles say both. There is a dispute there. But there is no dispute that all persons are entitled to human and civil rights."

Association board president Cilly says such charges are beside the point, since the association has no dispute with Carroll and Elenz. She adds that there's been no communication between Carroll and Elenz and the board since they were turned down as renters. Asked why they weren't allowed to rent a cottage, she says it wasn't because they were gay, but because of "activities that at this point we've been advised not to talk about." And why kick the Grahams out? "What we couldn't let happen was have people not abiding by our bylaws. Then no one would take the bylaws seriously. The Grahams did not come before the board to ask approval to have overnight guests."

Juergensmeyer says the board did nothing illegal. He argues that while the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance prohibits housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, the association is a nonprofit religious organization and is therefore protected by the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act from compliance with the ordinance. Moreover, he says, since the cottages are built to be used only in the summer, they might not even qualify as housing under the ordinance. He adds that the issue of the Grahams is "far more complex than the display of the signs. My clients didn't go into details, but this is clearly a long-standing, difficult situation. Whether it goes beyond mere personality differences I do not know."

Before the hearing Carroll and Elenz had contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. Staff attorney Lauren Raphael says their case is compelling, though the organization hasn't yet decided whether to pursue legal action on the couple's behalf. "From our perspective," she says, "it's strong from a gay-rights perspective, in terms of housing discrimination, and from a First Amendment perspective, in terms of the Grahams being denied housing based on their religious beliefs." But, she points out, the case is complicated, the facts difficult to sort out. "In most of the First Amendment cases we take, you have a Nativity scene in front of a courthouse, you have state action." And while the court might look at the Board of Church and Society's decision, she says, "generally they're reluctant to interfere for establishment clause reasons. The courts aren't going to inquire into the legitimacy of professed beliefs."

Juergensmeyer contends that the courts shouldn't be involved. "You can discriminate in a religious organization," he says, citing as an example the Catholic ban on women priests. And when it comes to gays, "the church can choose its followers based on belief. That's the nature of religion."

In response Raphael says that a religious organization's right to discriminate may depend on whether the individuals involved perform functions that are essential to the church as a religious institution. "A Catholic church may be able to ban gay priests," she says, "but may not be able to dismiss a gay janitor."

Birkhahn-Rommelfanger says either way the Social Principles are pretty clear on the issue of housing discrimination. Juergensmeyer responds, "The church takes the position that sexual relations are appropriate only within the context of marriage. Sex between two 13-year-olds or between nonmarried persons is not appropriate, is not sponsored by the church. The Social Principles are clear on that as well." He adds, "No discrimination went on. The situation was one where you have an avowed gay couple living on the campground. What does that mean for the campground? Do you adopt a Clintonian 'Don't ask, don't tell' stance? Our position is it's up to the church to decide how to handle it. In fact, they didn't discriminate. But they want to maintain a spiritual and worshipful atmosphere at this beautiful natural setting where a community worships."

Cilly is dismayed by all the wrangling. "People want to put names on things and shout about it, but they forget this is a little town with a lot of diverse feelings. We have people on the far left and the far right, and they all live together. We're a community that tries to get along with each other." She adds, "The whole thing is spoiling the atmosphere at the campgrounds, and that's been ignored. Which is a shame. This is a place where people come to eat together, to be together, and worship together. It's a place where people can let their children outside and never worry about what's going to happen to them. It's a family-oriented place. The campgrounds were founded so we could have a place where people can gather to worship and live together, and we're in danger of losing that."

"I think the saddest part of all this is that we could have been included in that," says Carroll. "We never flaunted our homosexuality. We didn't have rainbow flags out there, and I kept my curlers at home." He laughs. "Probably the most offensive thing we did was that we would walk at night with our son walking between us, and the three of us would hold hands. In retrospect I guess it was offensive to them. But he's my son and the center of our existence. We're like any other family that way. We could have been part of the community, but because of the narrow-mindedness of a community, the community's in danger of being lost--and has already, in a way, been destroyed."

Asked why he believes he has to fight, Carroll says, "I've been asked before why we even want to be a part of it. And I'm going to sound like a fundamentalist Christian when I answer. I think we're supposed to be a part of this--as witnesses that gays and lesbians are part of God's creation and that gay and lesbian families with children are part of God's creation. Add to that that I'm not going to let people do this to me. I'm a Christian, I'm Methodist, and I'm moral."

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