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Bellingham teen fired from working as a camp counselor with The Firs because he’s gay

Jace Taylor, 18, said he applied and was hired for a position as a camp counselor at Fircreek, one of The Firs’ camps and was expected to start work this weekend, but was fired Tuesday after he posted a picture of him and his boyfriend on social media
Jace Taylor, 18, said he applied and was hired for a position as a camp counselor at Fircreek, one of The Firs’ camps and was expected to start work this weekend, but was fired Tuesday after he posted a picture of him and his boyfriend on social media Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

A Bellingham teenager fired from a job as a summer camp counselor for a local Christian organization because he is gay says he’s not planning legal action, or looking for money; he just wants awareness.

Jace Taylor, 18, said he was hired for a position as a camp counselor at Fircreek, one of The Firs’ camps, and was expected to start work this weekend, but was fired Tuesday afternoon after he posted a picture of him and his boyfriend on social media. Taylor’s father, James, posted about the incident on social media, which has since been liked nearly 600 times and shared more than 400 times.

Tom Beaumont, the executive director of The Firs, confirmed in a statement to The Bellingham Herald Thursday evening that Taylor was fired because of his sexual orientation. Beaumont said The Firs is a faith-based organization whose mission is not only to love kids, but to introduce them to God. Beaumont said the organization feels God primarily reveals himself in the Bible, and they work to accomplish their mission through their programs within the context of approved statements of faith as they understand them.

Under federal law it is illegal to discriminate or deny someone employment based on their sexual orientation. Under Washington state law, the way it is currently written, it is legal for a religious non-profit to deny employment to someone based on sexual orientation, according to Denise Diskin, the executive director of QLaw Foundation and of counsel with the firm Teller and Associates.

Diskin said employers are required to follow all applicable laws, including both state and federal. She said employers must follow whatever the more protective burden is for their employees.

Beaumont said each summer the camp hires young leaders to carry out the organization’s purpose. He said it’s critical they hire people committed to The Firs’ mission and statements of faith, and that they’re critical in fulfilling the organization’s mission.

“Just recently we extended an invitation for a young man well known and loved at The Firs to serve as a counselor at Fircreek (our day camp program). When it became evident in the process that he did not personally align with our statements of faith (in particular, one regarding sexuality) and could not sign the agreement all are required to sign he subsequently was disqualified from being a counselor,” Beaumont’s statement said.

“Our quandary was this. In order to be consistent to our beliefs and our mission we felt compelled to pass on someone we truly liked for this counselor role. I sincerely wish this was otherwise. I know this may be confusing and contrary to your beliefs. Please be assured that I and the full leadership of The Firs will continue to seek the appropriate means to carry out our mission in the context of a changing world,” the statement continued.

Taylor’s father, James, said he posted on social media because he wanted people to know this was going on, and because he said he knows what a great counselor his son would have been.

Both James and Jace Taylor said the outpouring of support they’ve received from community members, some of whom they don’t know, has been amazing and has blown them away. James Taylor said they received a handwritten note on their doorstep from the Whatcom Youth Pride Coalition.

Jace Taylor said he intends to picket on the first day of camp, which is June 24. He said it isn’t intended to scare anyone, but instead to inform them.

“We want to continue talking with people and working with the community of spreading the word, and just showing in general, discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation is not acceptable and is a basic violation of human rights,” Jace Taylor said.

Discrimination law

Brionna Aho, a spokesperson for the Washington State Attorney General’s office said the office does not generally offer interpretations of the law outside of client advice and Attorney General opinions. She said if anyone feels they were the victim of unlawful discrimination, they should file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission within six months of the incident, or file a complaint with Attorney General’s office.

The Firs Bible and Missionary Conference is a 501(c)(3) (nonprofit) tax-exempt organization, according to the Washington State Secretary of State’s corporations and charities filing system website.

The organization ended 2017 with $4.6 million in assets. It collected $3,338,209 in revenue and had expenses of $3,336,179, according to the state website. Seventy-nine percent of funds went to program services. The data is the most recent available online.

Diskin said under Washington state law, religious non-profit employers are not defined as employers. In a 2014 state Supreme Court case, the court ruled that it was not Constitutional to deprive employees in Washington all of their civil rights and to completely exempt religious non-profit employers from honoring any civil rights when they’re not tied to religious beliefs or the duties that person is performing as part of their job, Diskin said.

Diskin said there is currently a case pending before the state Supreme Court that asks the court for further clarification on this issue. The case is related to an employee of a religious non-profit organization who was prevented from applying for a job he was qualified for based on his sexual orientation, Diskin said.

Diskin, who is representing the plaintiff in the case, said she expects the court to hear it sometime in the fall.

Under federal law, there is no exclusion for non-profit religious organizations, Diskin said. She said the only religious protection afforded to religious employers is that they can require the employee to be of a certain faith to apply for a job.

Taylor feels betrayed

Jace Taylor and his family have long ties to The Firs, which has camps and offices in the Geneva neighborhood. For him, being fired felt like a betrayal, he said.

Jace Taylor said he started attending Fircreek when he was around 6 years old, and then attended Camp Firwood as he got older. He said he remembers always having great experiences, and that they would often go swimming, paintballing or build forts.

The teenager, who also worked in the dining hall at the camps for around four years, said he’s wanted to be a camp counselor for The Firs since he started attending when he was a kid. He applied last month, received an interview two days later, and finally got his opportunity.

Jace Taylor said he was hired to be a camp counselor for Fircreek working with kids in kindergarten up through middle school. He was expected to start June 16 and work through Aug. 24, he said. It was a paid position.

On Tuesday, Jace Taylor received a text message from his boss, Darell Smith, Fircreek camp director. Smith asked him to come into the office on Cable Street. He met with Smith at 3 p.m. In the meeting, he said Smith, who is a family friend of the Taylors, had a hard time telling him they were terminating him because of his sexual orientation. Jace Taylor told Smith it was unfortunate it came to that, but that he respected him. They shook hands and Jace Taylor left.

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Jace Taylor said he’s now angry about what happened.

“I feel betrayed in a way. I was loved and accepted there,” Jace Taylor said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald Wednesday evening. “I’m just really discouraged and confused and angry with what has happened, but mostly I felt betrayed by a second family.”

Jace Taylor, who identifies as gay, said he’s never experienced discrimination like this based on his sexual orientation. Jace Taylor said he came out during his junior year of high school and has received support from friends and family. He said overall it was a positive experience.

Jace Taylor said one time during the last day of a Firs camp, he asked whether it was wrong for a man to love another man. The counselor told him that the Bible said man should not lie with man and that relationships should be solely between a man and a woman. Other than that one time, Jace Taylor said he was never told anything similar from camp staff.

“I just remember always having a blast, always having a story by the end of the day. I never had a negative time being at camp,” he said. “The staff was super loving and accepting of the kids at the time. I have nothing but good memories of that place.”

Jace Taylor said when he applied for the job he was aware of a doctrinal statement on The Firs’ employment page of its website that states the organization believes in the institution of marriage as being between one man and one woman, and that there are only two distinct sexes of male and female. He said he didn’t want to let that statement stop him from applying, and said he felt that he could potentially make change at the organization.

He said he wanted to “show them that Christ loves everyone and accepts everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are.”

Jace Taylor said as of Wednesday evening, no one from The Firs organization had directly reached out to him about the situation, other than one camp counselor who commented on a social media post.

Taylor’s father, James, said when his son called him explaining the situation, it brought tears to his eyes.

“I knew what this meant to him. He’s always talked about wanting to be a camp counselor and the timing seemed to work well this summer. He’s going off to college in the fall, so this was one last hurrah,” James Taylor said. “He’s been nothing but excited since they said he was hired. When I got a call from him sobbing, it completely and totally broke my heart.”

History with camps

James Taylor said all four of his children have been attending camps at The Firs since they were in kindergarten, and that Jace Taylor’s mother also attended the camps and was a counselor. He said their family has deep roots with The Firs.

“As a dad you want to protect your kids, and to think they’re refusing him because of who he is, who he is at his core — he’s nothing but a loving kid — it broke my heart and pissed me off,” James Taylor said. “I do not believe this what this community is about. It angered me and made me upset.”

“They provided so many great memories and I don’t want that to be ruined for other people. I just want them to realize the world is changing. We’re progressing and they’re stuck in this little box of whatever, and the rest of the world is moving on and being accepting of everyone and they’re still far behind,” Jace Taylor said. “I do believe Christ is a loving person and loves and accepts everyone no matter what they identify as.”

James Taylor said he hopes The Firs change their policy and “open up their hearts and minds to the way the world should be. I hope that other parents will open up their minds and hearts to see their kids for who they are and love them for who they are because it’s just totally 100 percent worth it.”

For campers and others, Jace Taylor said he offers the following advice:

“Be your authentic self. Don’t let people tell you it’s wrong to be who you are, that you have to fit a certain standard, that there are people out there that love and accept you for exactly who you are and won’t judge you for who you are.”

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.

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