New Area Church Says It Will Find Alternative Location To Saugatuck Public Schools For Its Gatherings
Following criticism of being anti-gay and violating the separation of the church and state constitutional clause, Third Coast Church says it is looking for an alternative place to the Saugatuck High School facilites in order to establish itself in the Saugatuck area community.
Third Coast Pastor Aaron Brown made the announcement at Monday’s Saugatuck Public School (SPS) Board meeting, while also contending his church was inclusive of all people and “honored diversity.”
Some parishioners also spoke in favor of the church plant, an offshoot of Holland’s Ridge Point Community Church.
But many continue to oppose the district’s existing lease agreement, including 200-plus persons who signed a petition asking the school to not allow any kind of church organization to rent from what is a tax-funded public entity, citing misplacement of students and it being a constitutional violation.
Following the pushback, district administrators asked SPS Attorney Robert Dietzel of Thrun Law Firm, for a legal opinion. Referencing his notes, SPS Superintendent Rolfe Timmerman said Dietzel advised the district, per its past practices, to lease “to all outside groups on equal terms” or if not, the district could possibly “open itself to a discrimination claim.”
Asked by The Local Observer if the district’s existing agreement with Third Coast was in violation of the Establishment Clause or the Religion Clause of the U.S. Constitution as some believe, Dietzel said he wanted to limit his comments given that the question dealt with interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
“It is nuanced,” he told The Local Observer.
In contrast, there are those convinced it most definitely does, including Elizabeth Estes and moe than 200 persons who signed the petition she presented to the SPS board Monday.
“The Saugatuck, Michigan Superintendent of Schools (Timmerman) has recently entered a lease agreement that runs afoul of that (Establishment clause), by permitting the school to be turned into a place of worship on Sunday mornings.
“Additionally, the Superintendent (Rolfe Timmerman) has failed to follow current school policy by displacing student events and practices to accommodate this church,” said Estes, who added she is gay and Christian, as she read, in part, from the petition.
Both critics and supporters—during the public comment sections of the Monday agenda—brought up “diversity” and “inclusiveness,” or lack there of, to support their position.
“Unfortunately and sad that this situation has been a platform for a discourse of fear and exclusion, but that happens,” said Mark Mikolitis, a local real estate property manager who said he has been with Ridge Point Community Church since 2010.
“Saugatuck is a community that celebrates diversity; that is the draw for many of us,” he continued, contending that to exclude the church from the school worked against that spirit.
“As we learned more about (Ridge Point), we found ourselves being welcomed and embraced. I never felt any discrimination.”
Other parishioners had similar comments about the continuing debate.
In their discussion, some school board members said that in whatever form the policy moves forward—the board is currently reviewing guidelines and policy to enact an update to lease agreements—they, apart from the legal opinion submitted by legal counsel, did not want to exclude anybody from a lease, including religious groups.
“We have to be careful not to restrict our community from using (the district’s facilities)—all our community pays taxes,” said SPS Board Member Jason Myers.
But Mike McCluskey, a parent of an SPS student, noted, “If those values (inclusiveness) are truly important to them (board members and church proponents), they owe it to themselves to discuss the racially-based mascot issue as well.
“In June 2003, the Michigan State Board of Education issued a resolution calling for all Michigan schools to eliminate American Indian mascots and nicknames,” he said, reading, in part, from a statement.
“Saugatuck has flirted with this issue several times before, particularly when it disqualified the middle school from a Blue Ribbon Exemplary School Award. A community forum ended with a vote endorsing change.”
Estes also weighed in, saying, “I support Mark’s (Mikolitis) statements about being fair and inclusive, but this (debate) began with a very bad post on the church’s website (a statement deemed anti-gay by critics, subsequently removed from the website, and for which Pastor Brown later apologized).”
Signed by Superintendent Timmerman weeks back, the one-year lease agreement with Third Coast is worth $24,000, a revenue stream that now stands to be lost.
By contrast, SPS officials say, the school has generated some $22,000 the last two years from other short-term lease agreements; examples includes Pristine Driving School, The Dance Asylum, Elite Baseball, etc.
The school does not have a definite policy in place for renters, it has guidelines it follows provided by Neola, a consulting firm established in a few states in the U.S. and specializing in educational policy.
Following the pushback, SPS administrators asked Neola to provide it with an update.
“Moving forward, we are going to have a policy,” said Timmerman.
The board will discuss that proposed policy at a future workshop before formal adoption.
It is a policy that may well incorporate ideas discussed Monday, particularly the notion which seemed to gain traction among board members: the school should be liberal about renting to any group, but enact a clause allowing for review of any lease term and conditions after six months, after which the board may restrict certain activities or do away with a lease agreement altogether.