Port Austin Bible Campus Controversies
If you arrived at this page, not knowing much about the Port Austin Bible Campus ministry to the homeless, you can read about it here.
The Bible Promises Christians will have controversies
Port Austin Bible Campus has been involved in its share of controversies. That is to be expected. Jesus Christ was surrounded by controversies.
“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20).
"When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household! Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known" (Matthew 10:23-26).
Jesus' controversies were much bigger than ours. The Gospel of John records 10 efforts by the leaders to kill Jesus before they were finally successful (John 5:16, 18; 7:1, 19, 25; 8:37, 40, 59; 10:31; 11:53). But he had to deal with people problems and false accusations as well. Christ was often accused of hanging around with the wrong people, “publicans and sinners” and of being a “glutton and a winebibber” (Luke 5:30; 7:34; 15:1). The leaders questioned his education for the job he was doing (John 7:15). They specifically looked for false witnesses against Him (Matt 26:60). The same problem continued with His disciples:
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus. And seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it (Acts 4:13-14).
When he [Paul] had come, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood about and laid many serious complaints against Paul, which they could not prove, while he answered for himself, "Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended in anything at all" (Acts 25:7-8).
"But we desire to hear from you [Paul] what you think; for concerning this sect [Christianity], we know that it is spoken against everywhere" (Acts 28:22).
We are not so vain to think that every difficulty we suffer is the result of someone else persecuting us. There are times when we suffer for our own mistakes. We realize that some of the criticism we have received is valid. On the other hand, much of what has been written against us is false and easily proved so.
For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God (1 Peter 2:20 ).
The following sections give basic information on the controversies in which PABC has been involved. More information will be added if there is sufficient interest. The most recent controversies are listed first.
July 2013 — Zoning Violation ‐ Post-judgment and Appeal
Read the Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict to be heard in Huron County District Court Monday, July 15, 2013.
This motion covers aspects of the case that were not permitted at trial: 1) Whether zoning applies to unincorporated churches and 2) the statutory construction of the township zoning ordinance.
2012 - 2013 — Cited for Zoning Violation
While PABC continues to extend its service to the people of the local community, it is in court defending a criminal offense-having chickens! (Keep reading!) This is a follow up to the item, below, 2012 — Port Austin Village Counsel Meeting.
Both the work of PABC and the trials it suffers are on a much smaller scale than that of the church under the apostles. Nevertheless, the principles are similar and we believe they provide guidance for us today. The religious leaders in New Testament times (Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees) were opposed to the apostles teaching that Jesus was the Messiah. But what bothered them the most, was the fact that the apostles were not trained by them and their schools and that they were attracting so much attention for undeniable good works (see Acts 4:13-14 quote, above).
I was invited to speak about the Port Austin Bible Campus in a board meeting of the Village of Port Austin on Monday, June 11, 2012. While PABC is outside the Village limits, in the jurisdiction known as the Port Austin Township, the Village board asked us to come because we are very close by and many of the PABC Guests walk into the Village for jobs, shopping and various services. Their clear message was that they did not want homeless people, especially those with criminal records, to be anywhere near their Village. They were not concerned with where they might go or whether their families would stay together, as long as it was somewhere else. The Port Austin Township Supervisor (who does have authority in our township) was also present at the meeting. Here is a summary of her comments in the official Village minutes:
Darcie Finan commented that Edwards is not educated or qualified to be doing what he is doing and there may be other avenues to go through. [emphasis added]
Nine days after this meeting, The Township Zoning Inspector sent a certified letter to us telling us our property was not zoned for "farm animals" and gave us 48 hours to remove them. The approximately 45 chickens we have are fed largely from leftovers and spoiled donated food. They provide a wonderful source of fresh eggs. Some of the homeless Guests help care for the chickens; all the Guests are required to separate usable food from other trash. It is a good lesson for all: when one does not have a job, one should use one's time to save money. We have had chickens in the same location for the last seven years-and have never had complaints about noise from anyone. Was this letter one of the "other avenues" mentioned above?
This writer knew of other instances where governments had effectively tried to destroy a ministry by enforcement of numerous zoning regulations. It is very likely that our older buildings could be found technically in violation of other zoning ordinances. This case of the chickens appears to be a good one in which to pursue the legal issues, if the Township was serious enough to stay with it. On October 10th, a criminal citation was issued, and Huron County 73B District Court case 12-1982-ON began. The original case was filed against Norman Scott Edwards, personally, but at the pretrial conference the prosecution agreed to change the name of the defendant to Norman Scott Edwards, Trustee of Port Austin Sabbatarian Church Community Sacred Purpose Trust, as the chickens belonged to the church ministry as a whole and were used for that purpose. Even so, if found guilty, the Trust could be fined $100, or its Trustee (me) could be sentenced to 90 days in jail-or both-for each day that chickens have been on the property.
While some well-meaning Christians would say "get rid of the chickens and stay out of court", we find numerous examples in the New Testament where the apostles stood up for their rights to be judged in the courts that God commanded us to create (Duet 16:18-20). When the apostles were commanded not to teach in Christ's name for no legal reason, Peter's reply was, "we ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). When Paul and his companions were beaten illegally, he demanded that the town officials come to let them out, rather than just send a messenger to release them (Acts 16:37). Paul used his citizenship to prevent a beating in Acts 22:25-29. When people high in government tried to have Paul transferred from Caesarea to Jerusalem so they could kill him along the way, Paul exercised his right to be heard by Caesar:
So Paul said, "I stand at Caesar's judgment seat, where I ought to be judged. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you very well know". (Acts 25:10).
The Bible teaches that we should use mankind's existing courts and appellate systems, and that they are responsible to be just (Deuteronomy 1:16-17; 16:18-20, 17:8-13). The highest court was given the power of the death penalty over those who would not heed the court. But if these systems are unjust, then the Judge of the Earth (Gen 18:25) will step in to do justice (1 Samuel 24:15; Psalm 12:5; 43:1; 140:2 Proverbs 22:23; 23:11; Romans 12:19).
Fortunately, many of the people who founded our legal system were Bible-reading, God-fearing men who instituted a lot of protection for religion.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." (Federal Constitution of the united States of America, First Amendment).
"Every person shall be at liberty to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience" (Michigan Constitution of 1963 Article 1, Section 4).
"Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged" (Michigan Constitution of 1963 Article 8, Section 1).
(a) Substantial burdens (42 USC 2000cc, The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act)
(1) General rule
No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution-
(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest
These foundational principles show that governments should encourage religion and not arbitrarily impact the functioning of a religion. Through the process of legal discovery, I obtained statements from both the Township Supervisor and the Zoning Inspector that there were no complaints associated with our chickens, but they simply became aware of their existence and felt it was their duty to enforce the zoning ordinance. There is no compelling governmental interest-there is no legitimate interest whatever.
I am taking the position that The Port Austin Township Zoning Ordinance itself and certainly its enforcement section does not apply to property used by unincorporated churches. The entire long Title and Preamble to the Zoning Ordinance says nothing about regulating churches or religious land use, nor about protecting the rights of churches or religions. Section 201 has 111 definitions of various terms used in the ordinance and there is no definition of "church" or for anything religious. The definition of "person" in Section 200.7 is as follows:
The word "person" includes an individual, a corporation, a partnership, an incorporated association, or any other similar entity.
Neither a free church, created via declaration of its members, nor a religious trust, created by a private individual correspond to any of the above words. They are not even close enough to be a "similar entity". Indeed, most church groups today are organized as non-profit corporations-in asking the state government to create a corporation, a perpetual "artificial person" with limited liability; they are also asking to be regulated by the state. We have deliberately chosen to forgo those benefits, to trust God instead, and to avoid regulation by the secular state. The few references to Churches within the main body of the Zoning Ordinance must be references to Church corporations which are included in the above definition.
Furthermore, the zoning code has no mention, whatever, of church communities, such as we find in Acts 2:42-47; 4:33-35. These communities, in addition to being residential and agricultural, might also take on business and industrial endeavors. In the Scripture, Lydia was a fabric merchant, but also had believers staying in her house (Acts 16:14-15, 40); Paul once lived and worked together with another tent-maker (Acts 18:2-3). The Bible teaches us to bring the poor into our houses (Isa 58:7; Luke 14:13; Hebrews 13:2-3). We are not asking the Township to create a church community zoning for us, but stating that it was the intent of the legislature and those who wrote the Title and Preamble to the Zoning Ordinance that Townships should not apply zoning regulations to religious land use.
The Zoning Ordinance clearly states that only a "person" can be guilty of a misdemeanor. Using the Ordinance's definition of "person", above, that does not apply to a church, a ministry, a trust or its trustees.
Any person violating any of the provisions of this Ordinance shall be guilty of a misdemeanor. (Section 2700).
This writer has not been a stranger to litigation on these kinds of matters. In 2005, our property tax exemption was denied because the local assessor had never read the law. He had only had training classes, which only taught him to make churches tax exempt if they were recognized by the IRS as tax exempt under section 501(c)(3). It was not until 2007 that we received a hearing in court, but when we did, it took the judge only about half an hour to decide that we were tax exempt.
The upcoming dates for my motion to dismiss the case on the grounds of religious freedom, and then the trial that will follow if the case is not dismissed, are currently set for late December and early January, but they will likely be extended. We would appreciate the prayers of interested believers.
It was a blessing that there was less ministry going during the years when the early litigation was in process. Presently, it is very difficult to keep up with the daily ministry needs, facilities management, fund raising, article writing and new litigation as well. However, we realize that our Father in heaven knows exactly what we can do and what He wants to do through us. If He wants this ministry to continue, He will make a way to do it. If not, we will gladly serve in whatever other work He has for us.
The agenda for the June 13, 2012 Port Austin Village Council Meeting included a time to discuss the homeless ministry at Port Austin Bible Campus (PABC). Since PABC is outside the village limits, the council has no direct authority over it and meeting was intended to be primarily informational. Nevertheless, both the Port Austin Township Supervisor and the Huron County Commissioner from district 7 were present and participated. This article appeared in the June 8, 2012 Huron Daily Tribune inviting people to the meeting, and then this article appeared on June 13, 2012, afterward. Both articles have dozens of questions and comments from readers.
Norman Edwards answered the Village Council, the Township supervisor, the County Commissioner and the Huron Daily Tribune with the this letter (available here in pdf), which was also published in the Tribune.
On Friday, June 15, 2012, we received a visit from a Huron County Sheriff Sergeant on behalf of Child Protective Services who had been called by some unknown person who said we had children in buildings with no electricity or water. After testing a few lights, sinks and toilets, he left. While we were busy with the Sergeant, we received this panicky phone message from a DTE representative who had obviously heard a good acting job from someone convincing her that we were without power. We have never had utility service shut off since moving here in 2004. We called the various agencies and assured them we were all right. The people who make these false accusations and waste so many people's time should be ashamed of themselves.
Finally, the council meeting was covered on radio station WLEW, a transcript of which follows:
2005-2008 – Property Tax Exemption Trial
Today, most churches are formed as non-profit corporations, and seek federal tax exempt status under IRS code section 501(c)(3). This 501(c)(3) exemption is typically used to grant property tax exemptions and a host of other non-profit benefits. In the 1700s or 1800s, section 501(c)(3) did not exist and very few churches were incorporated. No law has ever been passed requiring churches to do these things because churches are protected by our Federal and State Constitutions. Indeed here are many hundred-plus-year-old churches that have never incorporated or sought 501(c)(3) tax exemption. There are also new churches who have studied the issues and chosen not to do these things. More Information is available here.
Unfortunately, few tax assessors or tax Boards of Review are familiar with these old means of organizing churches, so PABC was not initially given tax exempt status. But after going through the review process and then to court, tax exempt status was granted us. The 3-page Final Opinion and Judgment is here: final 1, final 2 and final 3. It makes reference to the 8-page Proposed Opinion and Judgment here: page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4, page 5, page 6, page 7 and page 8.
2004-2007 – Legal Dispute with Original PABC Ministry Participants
Norman Edwards and his family moved to the former Port Austin Air Force Base property in 2004 with three other men and their families during he summer of 2004. There was no written plan for the ministry, but a lot of verbal promises made. There was a written mission statement, which is largely the same today, but many other essential details were understood very differently by the people involved. Two of the men never offered any significant amount of money to help the ministry and had moved on in about a year. The third made about $90,000 in property payments and sued the ministry and Norman Edwards for the money. The ensuing judgment, dated November 26, 2007 is here in for pages: page 1, page 2, page 3 and page 4.
The story is long and difficult and may someday be told in greater detail. For now, the judgment above shows that the "last pending claim" has been resolved.