Baptist retreat center ends 28-year relationship with ONA Florida UCC church
Written by Jeff Woodard
June 14, 2011

Labyrinth walk at the United Church of Gainesville (Fla.) UCC. (Photo provided)

For the past 28 years, members of the UCC's United Church of Gainesville (Fla.) have gathered in great numbers for their annual spring retreat at the Lake Yale Baptist Assembly Ground.

"We had a wonderful retreat there on the last weekend in April this year," said the Rev. Sandy Reimer, co-pastor of Gainesville UCC. "Good programs, workshops, worship – we had 283 folks attend, which included 24 preschoolers up to adults in their 70s."

Then, during the first week of June, Reimer received a letter and a phone call from the Lake Yale Conference Center.

"Don Sawyer, the director of the conference center, called to tell me that we would no longer be welcome at Lake Yale for our retreats because we were 'promoting homosexuality.' "

"Their staff noticed several of our folks wearing ONA T-shirts," wrote Reimer in an early June email. "They told the director, then checked out our web site and confirmed that we were Open and Affirming."

Sawyer notified the governing board, whose policy states that any church or denomination that affirms gay people and/or gay marriage is not welcome on their property.

"We have been an Open and Affirming church for about two decades," Reimer said in the email. "We have about 750 members with a healthy mixture of gay and straight folks, families, children, elders, a real diversity of ages and lifestyles."

Congregation members plan to send a letter to John Sullivan, executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention, said Reimer.

"We are asking that they give us, and, in the future, give all groups that rent their facility, written notice of their policy not to allow groups with gay/lesbian/bi members to use their conference center."

Don Hepburn, public relations director for the Florida Baptist Convention, said the retreat center has a "long-standing policy that groups that use our facility must be in conformity with our biblical faith."

"This particular group has used the facility for the past 30 years, and at no time have they ever forthrightly said to us, 'We're an alternative lifes [sic] group.' That is, 'We promote homosexual behavior.' Therefore, we've been unaware all these years of that particular perspective. Certainly, that is a conflict with our understanding of the Bible," Hepburn said.

The church is also seeking counsel regarding the legality of a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization to discriminate in renting its facilities, said Reimer. "We need to find out if this breach of their contract with us – with no written reason and our having no fore-knowledge of this policy – is legal."

The Gainesville church had already sent a deposit check for $2,500 for next April's retreat at the conference center.

"They have enclosed a check, returning our deposit," said Reimer, appearing to hold a faint hope for a favorable resolution to the situation. "We are not cashing it yet."

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