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VOL. 39 | NO. 22 | Friday, May 29, 2015

Swinging church? Courts to have last laugh

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It’s official: No sex clubs are allowed outside of industrial areas or within 1,000 feet of a home, church or school in Metro Nashville.

The council passed the ordinance recently in response to a proposed swingers club’s attempt to relocate next door to Goodpasture Christian School in Madison.

Unfortunately for school leaders, the new zoning law’s approval comes more than a month after the club’s well-publicized strategy to get around it. The Social Club’s attorney has said the enterprise moving into 520 Lentz Dr. is not a swingers club – it’s now a church called United Fellowship Center.

He famously resubmitted the building plans with two formerly dungeon-themed rooms relabeled “choir” and “handbells.”

Most reaction that followed either reflected schadenfreude (from people who feel religious mores hold too much sway over government) or disgust (from people who felt the club was being sacrilegious).

Emotions aside, the major question becomes whether the strategy could work. The short answer: Probably not, if The Social Club hasn’t genuinely changed its purpose along with its name.

Club attorney Larry Roberts offered some doctrine that United Fellowship would follow. It’s basically the Ten Commandments, but with a significant adjustment in the seventh: “Do not commit adultery without the knowledge and consent of your spouse.”

Members will pay an annual fee plus admission charges for visits, and Roberts even offered Goodpasture President Ricky Perry a tour – if Perry will pay to come in.

What church members won’t do, Roberts explains, is have sex on the premises or ask for a religious tax exemption.

“One thing we’re concerned about is that churches and their schools have been stealing from the public, and we’d like to see that stopped,” he says. “They get police and fire protection and roads, but they don’t pay any taxes.”

That stance removes United Fellowship from IRS scrutiny about whether it’s actually a church, but not from all government scrutiny.

“The ball is really in their court,” says Councilwoman Karen Bennett, who represents the Goodpasture area. “They have to decide who they want to be.”

United Fellowship’s owners are renovating the building, says Metro Zoning Administrator Bill Herbert, and that will prompt a series of inspections and then a request for an occupancy and use letter from Metro.

Herbert will have to grant it if all the requirements are met. After that, if anyone complains that United Fellowship Center isn’t operating as a church, Metro could enforce its new zoning law through the courts.

Mark Goldfeder, director of the Law and Religion Student Program at Emory University, says several legal precedents would apply.

In Witmer v. United States, a 1955 military draft case, the plaintiff argued his status as a full-time minister of the Jehovah’s Witnesses should exempt him from service. The Supreme Court upheld a draft board’s finding that the plaintiff’s history didn’t demonstrate sincere commitment to those beliefs.

In the 1968’s United States v. Kuch, a defendant facing charges of selling LSD asked that her case be dismissed, claiming she had to take psychedelic drugs to honor her belief system in the Neo-American Church. She lost.

And most recently, in last year’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court found that the business owners’ objection to providing insurance coverage for certain types of birth control was indeed sincerely based on their long-held religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby won.

It seems obvious the club is using the First Amendment to get around local ordinances, explains Kathleen Flake, a religious studies professor at University of Virginia.

“They’ll be called upon to prove they’re religious based on common-sense criteria,” she adds. “I think they’re just having some fun at the public’s expense.”

Of course, United Fellowship and its Madison opponents may never end up in court. Perhaps the conflict could even be solved before Goodpasture students return from summer break in mid-August.

That’s certainly Perry’s wish.

“The Madison community, Goodpasture Christian School, the church community – it is our hope that their doors will never open as a sexually oriented business. So far, that’s what’s happened,” Perry says.

“I think this whole guise as a church is not working.”

He offered a quick solution – just donate the building to Goodpasture and take the tax exemption.

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RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 0 0 0
MORTGAGES 0 0 0
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 0 0
BUILDING PERMITS 0 0 0
BANKRUPTCIES 0 0 0
BUSINESS LICENSES 0 0 0
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0