An Illinois church camp is defending their right to deny rental of their facilities to homosexuals while a Kentucky church camp has won a major legislative victory in the two latest skirmishes over civil rights and religious freedom. Two men in Evanston, Illinois, both Methodists, have sued the Chicago Campground Association for $1 million, saying camp trustees refused to let them buy or continue to rent a camp cottage because they are a homosexual couple. Cottage owners Bob and Nanette Graham have filed a separate lawsuit, accusing camp trustees of trying to evict them because they befriended the two plaintiffs, Robert Carroll and Russell Elenz. The homosexual couple has drawn the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church into the suit, saying the UMC is the true owner of the Historic Methodist Campground. However, trustees of the 140-year-old Des Plaines, Illinois camp say they own the camp and are fighting to maintain legal control of the property.

Anti-discrimination laws

By law, camp facilities owned by religious groups and rented to outside groups are considered a public accommodation and subject to anti-discrimination laws. The campground association insists it is not subject to public accommodation laws because it does not rent to the public."The First Amendment should take precedence here," says Steve Laduzinsky, attorney for the camp's Board of Trustees. "This is not a civil-rights case. This is part of an internal church dispute over homosexuality and sexual orientation within the United Methodist Church. There are people trying to broaden the definition of a family to include same-sex marriages. Thousands of years of biblical teaching are being thrown out the window."Kenneth Dobbs, the plaintiffs' attorney, accuses campground trustees of hiding behind the First Amendment. "If you allow a camp to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, then no resident of a Methodist nursing home or a Catholic hospital would ever be safe. They could be thrown out for not conforming to church doctrine."

Rental Protection Passed

In a separate camp-related test of the First Amendment, the Kentucky state legislature has passed a controversial bill which allows religious organizations to refuse rental of their facilities to groups whose views conflict with their own. Gov. Paul Patton had vetoed the bill in March, but on April 14 the legislature voted to override the veto. The governor had accused the bill of "violating the spirit and meaning of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act by permitting discrimination on the basis of religion." The bill continues to forbid discrimination on the basis of disability, race, color, or nationality. The Bullitsburg Baptist Assembly campground in Boone County, Kentucky, had lobbied for the legislation after a group of atheists called Free Inquiry rented the facilities in 1996 and 1997."We rented to them the first year not knowing who they were," says Wayne Lipscomb, pastor of Union (Ky.) Baptist Church and former chairman of the camp's board of trustees. "The second year we rented to them to avoid putting our assets at risk of a lawsuit, and then aggressively pursued changing the law.""This bill was greatly needed and is not about anything other than religious freedom," says Sen. Dick Roeding, chief sponsor of the bill in the Kentucky Senate and part of a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers who worked for the override."The old law could have forced a Catholic hospital to rent its facilities to an abortion rights conference or required a Jewish community center to host a religious conference that wanted to make pork the meat of the new millenium," Roeding says. "It trampled on the Constitution." The bill becomes law in 90 days.

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Precendent-Setting?

Meanwhile, the Illinois campground case is far from over. Legal filings and confidential mediation sessions related to the discrimination charges are expected to continue into the summer camping season. Administrative proceedings with the Cook County Human Rights Commission must be exhausted before the lawsuits can move through the courts.Attorney Dobbs says his clients are prepared to take the matter all the way to the Supreme Court. "It's a great case for setting precedent, because it forces people to confront what they want to do with homosexuals."Carroll, a certified lay teacher in the United Methodist Church, and Elenz, who works as a program assistant for the United Methodist denomination, are also pursuing a remedy through church channels. Results of an inquiry conducted by the UMC's Board of Church and Society will be presented to delegates at the Northern Illinois Conference's regional meeting in DeKalb, Illinois, in early June. Several options are open to the conference, says C. Joseph Sprague, bishop of the UMC's Northern Illinois Conference. The church could pursue civil litigation, which he says no one wants. Or, he says, the parties could agree to disagree. "Under that scenario, we would find a way to relieve ourselves of the camp property. We would let the camp trustees go on about their business, but not under the United Methodist banner."Bishop Sprague admits fractures on issues of sexual orientation are widening within the UMC. "It's embarrassing for everyone who calls themselves a United Methodist to be fighting publicly on these issues."

Related Elsewhere

The Grahams' legal complaint against the Chicago District Campground Association is available online.The United Methodist Reporter has been covering the battle for months. Its articles include "Des Plaines campground case continues" (Feb. 4, 2000) "Judge returns campground dispute to church" (Jan. 12, 2000) and "Campground dispute tangles Northern Illinois United Methodists in web of church issues" (Sept. 1,1999). The United Methodist News Service has also been actively covering the dispute.The Windy City Times, Chicago's gay newspaper, has an article about Carroll and Elenz.The American Atheists site has an article on the Kentucky legislation.Edwin F. Kagin, the director of the atheist group that had rented from the Bullisburg Baptist Assembly, has several pages of information about the Kentucky bill and the specifics of his group's controversy.See more coverage of the Kentucky case in the Kentucky Post (which also has earlier stories and an opinion column on the subject) and the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal.


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