Religious liberty and naked beach parties

There was some excellent discussion in the comments to a recent post mentioning this story: “PCB church loses tax exemption after opening club.”

That’s the determinedly un-sexy headline from the Panama City (Fla.) News Herald for a story that a less somber news outlet might’ve headlined “Naked Twerking Parties Mean Tax Trouble for Local Church”:

A local church that has been hosting naked paint parties and slumber-party Sundays with the “sexiest ladies on the beach” will now have to pay taxes on the property as officers investigate the church’s practices, authorities said Tuesday.

The Life Center: A Spiritual Community, 9721 Thomas Drive, has been up and running its seven-days-a-week party schedule as Amesia: The Tabernacle since Feb. 28. But The Tabernacle, which caters to college students on vacation, has caught the attention of more than just party-seeking spring breakers.

SpringBreakersSince ATMs and a banner promoting “iDrink” appeared out front of The Life Center, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office and Panama City Beach Police Department investigators have began taking a closer look at the church. Owned by Markus Q. Bishop, former pastor of Faith Christian Family Church, officials said the club has been engaging in activities unbefitting of a church. …

Club Amnesia has shut down its website. However, when the website was available, it boasted a Sunday night event called “Slumber,” a pajama and lingerie party hosted by “the sexiest ladies on the beach.” Raves take place weekly along with an “Anything But Clothes” paint party. And Wednesday nights are reserved for an event called “Wet n Wild,” a water-themed event where “white water meets Tabernacle PCB with a little twerkin’,” the website stated.

“I’ve been in a lot of nightclubs and I’ve been in a lot of churches,” said PCBPD Chief Drew Whitman. “That isn’t a church.”

Patrons are charged $20 at the door, which is called a donation. And T-shirts depicting stick figures performing oral sex on one another and the text “I hate being sober” adorn the walls.

Whitman and McKeithen said it is not the nature of the events that has piqued their attention. Several similar events are hosted at clubs just east of Club Amnesia. However, the business does not have alcohol permits or appropriate licenses, is zoned as a church and has been tax-exempt as a church for years, McKeithen said.

Property Appraiser Dan Sowell sided with law enforcement. He said the lot had been tax exempt as a church until word spread about the activities being held within. The property’s tax-exempt status was changed Tuesday morning.

“A bottle club, charging $20 at the door and selling obscene T-shirts is not being used as a church,” Sowell said. “A God-fearing, God-honoring church in January does not sponsor this type of debauchery in March.”

I’m inclined to agree with the police chief’s conclusion: “That isn’t a church.” This certainly appears to be what he and other local officials have concluded — an attempt to exploit the tax-status of a church while operating as a club geared to attract partying spring breakers.

But local officials — police departments, appraisers, liquor boards and the like — are obligated to be cautious and deferential whenever their roles require them to make a determination about whether something is or is not “a church.”

That’s part of the reasoning behind the unanimous 2012 Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor. That case involved the ministerial exemption from employment discrimination laws. More specifically, it involved the question of who has standing to determine what constitutes a “minister.” The court ruled 9-0 that this designation is not their business.

That reasoning has been at work in several subsequent cases — including the Hobby Lobby decision, which extended religious exemptions even to some for-profit companies. There’s a commendable impulse there and a credible principle at work. The courts do not want to be put in the position of church councils. They do not want to be asked to adjudicate between legitimate and illegitimate religious claims.

From Hosanna-Tabor to Hobby Lobby, in other words, the Supreme Court has shown a decided unwillingness to ever say the sort of thing Chief Whitman says: “This isn’t a church.”

Again, I think Whitman is probably right in the case of the dubious Markus Bishop and his “Life Center Church.” But what objective or legal basis do we have for determining that?

It’s also possible that Bishop has founded a new church that embraces ecstatic forms of worship including — and requiring — body paint, lingerie parties, “and a little twerkin’.” As some folks smartly noted in comments here, there’s plenty of historical precedent for such forms of religion and worship.

And who is to say that Bishop’s new religion mustn’t also include slot machines, table games, smoking indoors, all-nude dancers, and the sacraments of ecstasy and marijuana? If he’s sincere in his religious beliefs, why shouldn’t his sincerity be just as legally determinative as the sincerity of the owners of Hobby Lobby?

Actually, that understates the case. The Hobby Lobby ruling didn’t require the company to be sincere, only to claim that it was sincere. The court did not wish to entangle itself in distinguishing sincerity from insincerity any more than it wanted to entangle itself in distinguishing legitimate religion from illegitimate religion.

The Rev. Markus Bishop may be a lecherous huckster, but if his lechery and hucksterism were sincerely religious, then the Supreme Court would disagree with Chief Whitman. “Club Amnesia” would still be a church.

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