Editorial: LifeWay’s dodge on Glorieta

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Homeowners at Glorieta Conference Center deserve the first item on their Christmas wish list—their day in court.

Last summer, LifeWay Christian Resources, the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing house, announced it planned to sell Glorieta. The camp, located near Santa Fe, N.M., had been operated by the SBC through LifeWay and its predecessor, the Sunday School Board, since 1952.

knox newEditor Marv KnoxIn the fall of 2011, LifeWay reported it was considering selling Glorieta and scaled back operations at the camp. LifeWay said the camp failed to operate in the black 24 of the previous 25 years.

LifeWay tried to sell Glorieta at least four times. The Baptist Convention of New Mexico considered LifeWay’s offer to sell the camp for $1 but backed away since it could not afford deferred maintenance and other costs. About the same time the New Mexico convention received its offer, the Baptist General Convention of Texas also got a $1 proposal from LifeWay, but it declined to act.

After New Mexico Baptists decided not to buy Glorieta, LifeWay considered selling to California-based Olivet University International. But LifeWay rescinded its offer when the university apparently fared poorly in a theological study conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals.

Sold to Camp Eagle

Finally, last summer, LifeWay agreed to sell the camp to Glorieta 2.0, a corporation that owns Camp Eagle, a Christian facility located near Rocksprings in the Texas Hill Country.

The deal quickly turned controversial. The Glorieta property includes a number of cabins and lodges. Individuals, churches and other groups, including the BGCT, have owned the buildings. But LifeWay retained ownership of the property, which it has leased to the cabin-owners.

Glorieta 2.0 presented the cabin-owners with three options—a $40,000 buyout, later increased to range from $40,000 to $100,000; a final 12-year lease, after which cabin-owners would ether remove their buildings or give them to Glorieta 2.0; and an invitation to charitably donate the buildings to Glorieta 2.0.

This fall, cabin-owners Kirk and Susie Tompkins of Little Rock, Ark., sued LifeWay and others, accusing the publisher of fraud. An amended version of the suit seeks $12 million for the leaseholders/cabin-owners in general and $400,000 for the Tompkinses.

Suit: LifeWay not the owner

The suit claims the 1950 Glorieta property deed specifies the SBC Executive Committee is the owner, and the property never was transferred to LifeWay. Therefore, LifeWay did not have authority to sell the property. It also states as recently as 2011, LifeWay urged prospective buyers to purchase cabins and led them to believe the SBC would own Glorieta another 50 years.

Late last month, a federal judge agreed with the plaintiffs’ suggestion to remove the SBC Executive Committee and most LifeWay trustees and employees from the lawsuit. The judge recessed the case pending the defendants’ claim the court lacks standing to settle the dispute, since the First Amendment guarantees religious freedom.

This entire affair should create ambivalence in anyone who studies it carefully.

The leaseholders/cabin-owners generate sympathy. Some individuals and families have owned their Glorieta cabins for decades, even back to the foundation of the camp. It’s hard to imagine retired ministers and missionaries losing the primary investment of their lifetimes—their homes—with a return of only cents on the dollar.

Recent buyers should have known

The sympathy dissipates for leaseholders/cabin-owners who came along more recently. Anyone who signed a lease with the Sunday School Board/LifeWay after the late 1980s had to ignore all that happened within the SBC during the “Baptist battles” of the late 20th century.

And cabin-owners leased in the last few years had to turn a blind eye to the property all around them. Alongside falling participation at Glorieta’s famous weeklong camps, corporate-owned buildings across the campus lapsed into disrepair. Glorieta-owned vehicles ran on bald tires. Anyone who looked around could see dilapidation. No matter what LifeWay officials may have said about the future, prospective leaseholders’ eyes should have told them the truth.

On top of all this, of course, these people bought cabins knowing they never would own the property where they sat. Such a future never could be certain.

Sympathy for longtime cabin owners

Still, the individuals who bought cabins at Glorieta—particularly those who chose to live in them full time in retirement—are sympathetic. Most likely, many if not most of them chose Glorieta because their lives changed in that place. They bought because they believed in the mission and vision of what Glorieta stood for across six decades. They bought because they love and trusted the Southern Baptist Convention.

Would it have been too much for LifeWay to have sold all the corporate buildings and common land for $1 but required Glorieta 2.0 to pay the cabin-owners fair property value or provide a one-time lease renewal to the owners and their families for 50 years? No.

That would have been honorable and decent. It would have “taken care of” the elderly retired ministers and missionaries and given their families time to plan for their futures. And it would have provided a fair business proposition for the stakeholders of Glorieta 2.0. Even at that, Glorieta 2.0 would have received one of the most scenic religious camps in the world for a reasonable price.

Practicing hypocrisy

But now, beyond pushing the cabin-owners into an awful position, LifeWay is practicing hypocrisy—and, daresay, blasphemy.

LifeWay’s and the SBC Executive Committee’s attorneys claim the courts have no right to rule in this case. They cite a 2012 Supreme Court case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Church & School v. EEOC, that bars the government from interfering “with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.”

The attorneys also argued: “In addition, civil courts are incompetent to pronounce on matters involving the proper interpretation of religious doctrine, such as whether LifeWay’s decision to sell the Glorieta Conference Center was in accord with LifeWay’s religious beliefs.”

Yes, Glorieta is one of Baptists’ most sacred sites. Many thousands of campers who experienced the Spirit of God there call it holy ground.

Cheapening religious protection

But LifeWay’s sale of Glorieta has nothing to do with how LifeWay plans and conducts church camps and spiritual retreats. It is part of LifeWay’s attempt to get out of Christian camping in the Southwest. It is a business decision, pure and simple.

LifeWay’s and the Executive Committee’s argument the courts cannot intervene skews and diminishes the First Amendment. Ultimately, by cheapening religious protection, it undermines religious liberty.

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