‘Hate has come at a cost’ says father no longer supporting camp that fired gay teen

The Firs offers retreat center, day and resident camp on Lake Whatcom

The Firs Bible and Missionary Conference, on Cable Street east of Bellingham in Whatcom County, Wash., is a non-profit, tax-exempt Christian organization that operates a retreat center, day camp and resident youth camp on Lake Whatcom.
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The Firs Bible and Missionary Conference, on Cable Street east of Bellingham in Whatcom County, Wash., is a non-profit, tax-exempt Christian organization that operates a retreat center, day camp and resident youth camp on Lake Whatcom.

After word spread this week of a Bellingham teenager being fired from working as a summer camp counselor with a local Christian organization because he’s gay, community members took to social media to express their frustration over the situation, with some even pulling their children from the organization’s upcoming summer camps.

On Tuesday, June 11, 18-year-old Jace Taylor was fired from his position as a camp counselor at Fircreek, one of The Firs’ camps. Taylor was expected to start the paid position this weekend and work throughout the summer. Taylor’s father posted about the incident on social media, and his post has since been commented on more than 650 times, and shared more than 400 times.

The Firs Executive Director Tom Beaumont confirmed Thursday it fired Taylor because of his sexual orientation. In a statement released to The Bellingham Herald, Beaumont said each summer the camp hires young leaders to carry out the organization’s purpose, and that it’s critical they hire people committed to The Firs’ statements of faith.

Others who have longtime involvement with The Firs said they are no longer supporting the organization, or have also been fired or discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identities.

On various social media sites, other community members have commented saying they stand by The Firs’ decision and will continue to support the non-profit.

Beaumont did not return requests for comment from The Herald for this story.

Not supporting the camps

Mike Soltis, of Tsawwassen, Canada, said Thursday he made the decision to pull his daughter from the camp after he learned Taylor had been fired. It would have been his daughter’s fourth year attending the summer camp, Soltis said.

Soltis said he was heartbroken when he learned of Taylor’s firing.

“When we saw the post we just thought ‘Wow, we can’t support this through our money or through any affiliation until they deal with this,’” Soltis said.

Soltis said he and his wife met at Firwood, one of The Firs’ camps, in 1993. Both of them went on to become counselors and have made close connections and friendships with other Firs families, Soltis said.

“We’re a Firwood family. We’re quite connected with the camp. It’s quite a personal and meaningful thing that’s happening to us,” Soltis said.

Soltis’ daughter had been registered for months, he said. Several other family friends who also had children attending the camps also pulled their registrations, Soltis said. Instead, the families are having their own camp on a nearby lake the week the kids were all scheduled to be at The Firs, he said. With its cancellation policy, Soltis said The Firs kept a non-refundable deposit of $100.

Soltis said it’s important to challenge long-held ideas, as painful as it may be for some.

“The hate has come at a cost to that young man,” Soltis said. “It’s time for us to start using our voices and picking up signs. We can’t just quietly love and support, we have to advocate for and use our pocketbooks to send messages. In times like this, change is built on the backs of people and it can be painful.”

Like Soltis, Tracee Smith’s children have been attending The Firs for the past four years. She too decided to pull them from their planned summer camps after learning of Taylor’s firing.

Smith, of Whatcom County, said last year her daughters came home and were off-put by an experience they had while at the camp. Her daughters told her that while they were staying in one of the cabins, their counselor kept discussing homosexuality and stating that it was wrong. After this most recent incident, Smith said they made the decision not to support the organization further.

She said she wants to support a place that teaches the younger generation to be tolerant, even if it’s something they disagree with. She said she holds Christian beliefs, but doesn’t believe in excluding people.

“They have the right to believe what they want to believe and we have the right to not support it,” Smith said.

Feeling discrimination

Others who have attended camps put on by The Firs have said they have been made to feel uncomfortable because of their sexualities.

When asked multiple times Thursday and Friday to comment about other campers’ experiences, Beaumont did not respond to The Herald.

Jaxx Bosteter of Bellingham, 18, said they believe they were fired from being a camp counselor because of their sexuality and gender identity. Bosteter identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.

Bosteter said they had attended The Firs’ camps for several years, and in 2015 became a counselor in training. They attended a two-week volunteer program where they learned from other counselors and helped the campers with their activities.

Bosteter said they participated in one two-week session as a counselor in training, and then was asked back a couple of weeks later because the program was short on counselors. Bosteter was out online and involved with activism in the LGBTQ community. A couple days after Bosteter was hired back, they said they received a call from their boss saying they had found someone else and Bosteter wasn’t needed anymore.

Bosteter said they believe they were fired because of who they are. They said they hope other people don’t move forward in the world thinking it’s OK to dismiss others because of their sexuality, because people are so much more than that.

Sarah Somawang, 13, of Ferndale sent her story to The Herald with her mother Jennifer Somawang’s permission. She said she, too, felt uncomfortable while attending a Firs camp. Somawang, who is not religious, attended the camp last summer with a group of close friends. Somawang had recently come out to her friends and family, she said.

Somawang said as the camp went on, there were Bible studies where homosexuality was discussed, and was told that it was wrong.

“I did believe that God loved and accepted me for me until she said that. When she said that God doesn’t like gay people, I wanted to cry. I felt embarrassed, ashamed and upset,” Somawang said.

The Firs’ reaction

In his statement to The Herald, Beaumont said The Firs extended an invitation to Taylor, who was well-known and loved at The Firs, to work as a counselor. Beaumont’s statement went on to say that after The Firs learned Taylor did not align with the organization’s statements of faith and “could not sign the agreement all are required to sign he was subsequently disqualified” from his job.

But on Friday, Beaumont posted a statement similar to the one given to The Herald on the organization’s Facebook page, but added changes saying Taylor did not align with the non-profit’s doctrinal statements.

“In this case, in order to be consistent to our Mission and Doctrinal Statement, we unfortunately had to withdraw our invitation to this young man, who we truly like, for this summer staff role” Beaumont’s Friday statement said.

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.

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.

How The Herald obtained Sarah Somawang’s story was corrected June 15, 2019.

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.