A national environmental advocacy group has sent a letter to the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina complaining about the diocese's opposition to gay marriage and stating its intention to stop patronizing Camp St. Christopher, a Seabrook Island retreat center affiliated with the diocese.
The July 3 letter from the Sierra Club was sent to Bishop Mark Lawrence “on behalf of the 1.4 million members, supporters and staff of the Sierra Club.” The letter notes that the conference center has been used twice recently by the national organization and is occasionally patronized by the state chapter.
“Unfortunately we have learned that the owner of St. Christopher's ... has adopted positions regarding sexual orientation which do not reflect the values of our organization,” the letter states. “Given that the diocese holds views we find objectionable, ... we must inform you that the Sierra Club will no longer patronize St. Christopher's.”
The decision to boycott the camp coincides with similar moves by other organizations. On July 20, the Jim Henson Company of Muppets fame broke its business ties with the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A because of the restaurant management's anti-gay marriage stance.
“The Jim Henson Company has celebrated and embraced diversity and inclusiveness for over 50 years and we have notified Chick-fil-A that we do not wish to partner with them on any future endeavors,” read a statement posted on Facebook. “Lisa Henson, our CEO, is personally a strong supporter of gay marriage and has directed us to donate the payment we received from Chick-fil-A to GLAAD.”
The Boy Scouts of America, which recently affirmed its ban on gays, lost a business partner in Major League Soccer, which had forged an alliance in January but backed out because of the Scouts' policy.
St. Christopher's retreat center has been an important source of revenue for the diocese over the years. In 2011, the camp collected $3 million in revenue, according to an audited diocesan financial statement. The retreat center operates an independent budget; it carried about $1 million in bank loan debt last year after renovations and improvements were made.
Officials of the local diocese have long faulted the Episcopal Church for what they consider the liberal leanings of an institution too quick to compromise Scripture in favor of social trends. The church ordained its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003, and it voted earlier this month at its General Convention to approve the development of a rite for same-sex unions (granting individual bishops the right to opt out).
Conservatives have broken away or distanced themselves from the church because of these changes, saying they contradict biblical teachings and Anglican tradition. Advocates of change argue that the church always has struggled to reconcile its doctrines and practices with a changing society, and does so according to a systematic democratic process.
Lawrence said he was amazed at the Sierra Club's objection, which he called “immature” and “lacking sensitivity to the environment.”
“Having grown up in California and spending much of my life hiking in Sierra Nevada, ... I'm just astonished that they're departing from their main purpose of conservation of the environment and launching into this political world that, as I see it, has little to do with the protection of the wilderness,” Lawrence said.
Susan Corbett, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's state chapter, said the diocese has every right to follow a theology and practice that excludes gays and lesbians from certain roles and privileges, but so, too, does the Sierra Club have a right “not to patronize their institution.”
“The Sierra Club is going to encourage other like-minded organizations to suspend use of the location for a meeting space until such time as (the diocese's) policies become more inclusive and open to everyone,” Corbett said.
The diocese's stated opposition to gay marriage is “a view which is particularly hurtful to our members and staff who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender,” the letter, co-signed by Corbett and Sierra Club President Allison Chin, states.
Lawrence said he was not surprised that the diocese had been swept up in a political controversy.
“From formation of this country, ... religion and politics have mixed,” he said. “Politics was a part of the pulpit and the pulpit was a part of politics. It's hard to completely divorce the two.”
But he was surprised that the conservation group was “going down this road and making such a stink about it.”
“She'll have to do what she has to do,” he said, referring to Corbett's objections, “and we'll have to do what we have to do.”
Corbett said she heard about the diocese's stance recently and decided to act.
“I love that location; I think it's an amazing place,” she said, referring to the retreat center and advocating engagement on this and other issues concerning tolerance and inclusiveness.
For now, though, the Sierra Club will avoid Camp St. Christopher.
“We're not going to give you our money and support you financially if you're going to continue to hold this position,” Corbett said.
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