Saugatuck Public Schools' Property Lease With New Church Group Sparks Angry Protests
It was a packed house at the Saugatuck High School Library Media Center Monday night, and most of the people who spoke at the school board meeting expressed their opposition to the recent school district’s $24,000 lease agreement with a new church organization.
The newly founded Third Coast Community Church has already had two worship services at the high school’s auditorium during what Saugatuck Public Schools Superintendent Rolfe Timmerman referred to as “dead zone” time on Sunday mornings.
Many critics say Third Coast Coast Community Church’s message has an “anti-gay” undercurrent and question the constitutional legality—the separation of church and state clause—of the school leasing space to what is obviously a church organization.
Even if it is legal to rent the public school space to a church group, it sends a wrong message to parents, taxpayers and students, say opponents of the move.
The church is an offshoot of Holland-based Ridge Point Community Church, “whose largest benefactor is multi-millionaire, Elsa Prince, who (sic) has been one of the largest contributors of anti-gay legislation for many years now,” writes resident Mary Lukens in her January 15 Facebook post.
The few who spoke in support of of the church’s endeavors Monday night, including the pastors and a parishioner who is an openly lesbian mother of two, rejected the notion Third Coast was prejudiced towards any particular group in any way and said they welcome everybody to their organization.
Opponents to the school’s decision to rent space to the church have been sharing their anger and concern via emails, Facebook posts and tweets over the past week.
“I’m a lawyer so I have a little bit of knowledge about the Constitution,” said local resident Mary Feehtig. “It’s a tough balance. No church should be able to convert a school into their place of worship. Essentially, that is what has been allowed.”
Others echoed that sentiment, concerned about setting a bad precedent where a taxpayer-funded institution supports a church.
There was a suggestion by some critics that the school board had been “blind-sided” by the lease agreement which was handled and approved by Superintendent Rolfe Timmerman.
Critics also said neither parents nor the public was given any previous notice about the church rental of public school property. Also, they questioned why school board members did not discuss publicly or among themselves the possible legal ramifications of such a decision before the lease was signed.
Timmerman responded to those complaints, noting, ”It’s not illegal for a school to rent its facilities to a church; it happens all the time in many schools.”
Prior to signing the agreement, he said he asked questions like, “Are they (Third Coast) going to be good renters?” and “Is (Third Coast, by the means of this lease agreement) our core mission being hampered.”
Nevertheless, SPS Board Member Laura Zangara, also an attorney, conceded she and the board could have conducted more discussion, saying, “I think there needs to be a more in-depth discussion on the legal issues.”
Timmerman said he signed the one-year lease contract weeks back, and that it would generate $24,000 for the school district, thereby offsetting costs for the district’s programing.
School board members indicated Timmerman had acted according to what he was told, acting on behalf of the board throughout the rental agreement process.
“Zeeland rented their auditorium for four years and I’m not sure there was any problem,” said SPS Board Member Gordon Stannis, in support of Timmerman. “It’s just smart business.”
However, Saugatuck High School Student Georgia Richardson-Smaller, echoing similar feelings from others, noted, “I just wonder if money over morals is a good message we want to send to our students.”
One the harshest criticisms came from school parent Nick Capelleti.
“I would ask my 18-year-old son for better judgment than that Rolfe (Timmerman),” he said. “Did it not occur to you that it may not be illegal (to rent school space to a church), but maybe poor judgement? Did it not occur to you to talk to your constituents?”
An openly bisexual Saugatuck High School student noted, “It’s upsetting that a church that is opposed to what I am will be in my school.”
Local resident Keith Charak and others referred to items found online, namely a text and 45-minute video, that they said showed Ridge Point Community Church —and by extension, its Third Coast Church in Saugatuck—as “anti-gay” and interested in “proselytizing” to the Saugatuck community.
Third Coast Community Church Lead Pastor Aaron Brown wrote the respective text, which articulated his reasons for wanting to bring the church to Saugatuck.
One particularly inflammatory text that has angered opponents, reads, in part, “…we are excited to see how Jesus wants to mend what is broken in the culture of the city (Saugatuck) and in the personal lives of the people.”
Another section of Brown’s letter - referring to Saugatuck - states: “In the spring of 2014, we were asked to consider if, and where, God would have us plant a church that reaches out to those far from God. Through a time of prayer and reflection, we (Brown and his wife Emily) both felt lead to the same place and group of people: the community of Saugatuck.”
At Monday’s school board meeting, the pastor responded. “I understand through the lens of an oppressed group this is ignorant, insulting. I apologize for the arrogance and ignorance of this statement,” said Brown.
He further noted, “I just want to emphatically say we are not anti-gay, that is not our posture.”
“We welcome people from all walks of life and gender orientations to worship with us. We, like a lot of churches, don’t do same-gender weddings, but that does not preclude anyone from membership within our church.”
Some Ridge Point church members, however, said while they love their church, they don’t necessarily agree with some of the church’s views regarding the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender) community. They noted the church, for example, does not permit marriage ceremonies or formal baptisms of people who are openly gay and support and engage in homosexual relationships.
One openly gay church goer at Third Coast, however, supports the new congregation. Jennifer Klein said, “Yes, I’m gay. Yes, I attend the church. And they treat me wonderfully.”
Klein has a wife and says other parents from the parish feel comfortable with their children playing with her two kids.
“It’s going to take all of us coming together as a community. Love wins, right?” she told critics.
She like other proponents asked critics “for a chance” to worship in the community.
The school board took no action Monday night nor did it say whether or not future discussions on the matter will result in modification or elimination of the lease agreement.
“We hear you,” SPS Board President Jeff Myers told the audience, adding the board will continue discussion.
For now, the one-year lease contract will remain in place, he told The Local Observer.
“They may have heard us, but they definitely aren’t listening,” said school board critic Becky Carten-Crandell.