Opportunity Council ends contract with The Firs, calls it a ‘live-your-values moment’

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.

The Opportunity Council announced Friday it was terminating its more than 25-year-long kitchen lease with The Firs after the organization fired a Bellingham teenager in early June over his sexual orientation.

The Opportunity Council announced its decision in a press release Friday. David Webster, Opportunity Council’s director of early learning and family services, said the agency’s decision was officially made last week after important discussions were held. He said funders have been notified.

Webster said Opportunity Council paid $1,308 per month in rent, and typically spent a couple thousand a year on the shared upkeep of inventory and equipment.

The Firs’ decision to fire a summer camp counselor it had hired because he’s gay does not align with non-discrimination clauses in the federal and state contracts that fund the Opportunity Council programs, Opportunity Council’s Executive Director Greg Winter said in a press release.

“The Firs’ recent personnel actions are not compatible with our agency’s values,” Winter said in a prepared statement.

Tom Beaumont, The Firs’ executive director, said Friday he was just notified of the Opportunity Council’s decision to not renew their long-term contract with The Firs.

“The Head Start folks have been around our grounds and in our kitchen for many years and we are saddened that will no longer be the case,” Beaumont said in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “We have gotten to know many of their cooks over the years and have experienced a very personal and corporate relationship with OC and they with us. We respect the decision of their leadership but will mourn our loss.”

Beaumont confirmed in a statement to The Herald in early June that 18-year-old Jace Taylor was fired because he’s gay. Beaumont posted a public statement on The Firs’ Facebook page, stating that Taylor did not align with the nonprofit’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 statement said.

Under federal law it is illegal to discriminate against or deny someone employment based on their sexual orientation. Under Washington state law it is legal for a religious nonprofit 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), or nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, according to the Washington State Secretary of State’s corporations and charities filing system website.

A community-organized protest is scheduled for early morning on Monday, June 24 along the public sidewalks outside The Firs headquarters on Cable Street. Those planning to attend are urging for it to be a peaceful and silent protest that takes place from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Children attending summer camps at The Firs are being dropped off that day beginning at 7:30 a.m.

“We want to change hearts and minds,” said Cherrelyn Seegers, who is a spokesperson for a Facebook page for the protest.

While Taylor will not be present, his family issued a statement saying they were supportive of the efforts.

In a statement released Wednesday, June 19, on The Firs’ Facebook page, Beaumont thanked community members who had come forward with their thoughts and concerns, and said that The Firs was listening. He said that those who have been campers, or sent their children to the camps, or are part of the community are important to the organization.

Peacefully protesting

After word spread of Taylor’s firing, several parents decided to pull their children from The Firs summer camps, and others came forward to say they too had been made to feel uncomfortable because of their sexualities.

On various social media sites, other community members have commented saying they stand by The Firs’ decision and will continue to support the nonprofit. The Herald has reached out to multiple people for comment who have voiced their continued support for The Firs.

Dan Mueller, of Seattle, said his son, as well as 16 of his friends were all planning to attend one of The Firs’ summer camps. It was the first time Mueller’s son, who is 12, would have attended, but for some of the other families they were multi-generational supporters of The Firs. They had registered months ago, he said. Mueller’s son is going into seventh grade and attends an independent Catholic school in Seattle.

Mueller said an email was passed around among the 16 families about Taylor’s firing, and all came to the conclusion that they wanted to withdraw their children from The Firs and have found another camp.

“I want a really strong message coming from a group of kids that go to Catholic school that it’s not acceptable,” Mueller said. “We just want to send a message more than anything, and support the counselor indirectly.”

Beaumont said The Firs expected its summer camps, based on recent history, to have between 3,900 to 4,000 campers. Beaumont said pre-summer registrations were looking to meet those expectations this year.

He said the cancellations as of Friday, June 21, represent a loss between 4% and 7% of those registrations, between both Firwood and Fircreek camps. Beaumont said some kids added from a waiting list may adjust the numbers somewhat.

“We are very saddened and heartbroken; not just for the pain this has caused the individuals impacted by our decision, who we care for deeply, but also for the way The Firs is seen by many in our community right now — a community we have served for decades. Historically, we have sought to be a life-giving influence and blessing to all and right now, the picture of us out there by many is perceived as very un-Jesus like,” Beaumont’s statement read.

Beaumont’s statement went on to say this summer The Firs will continue to be about loving and caring for campers, and that the organization will be accepting and welcoming of everyone who wishes to attend. Beaumont’s statement said that those familiar with The Firs’ programs know “that we are not in the business of cloning or indoctrinating kids — especially about matters of sexuality,” but that campers will hear that God exists, wants to be in a relationship with them and that they are loved.

“We can’t guarantee that our understanding of the Bible will line up exactly with yours. But, we can guarantee that the message we convey will be crafted in a manner that is not belligerent, belittling or coercive,” Beaumont’s statement read.

The Firs will also be celebrating its 100-year anniversary, Beaumont said in the statement, and that over the next several months The Firs will be reviewing its policies and procedures.

“Frankly, we want to be better and we want to learn as we seek to make a positive (not negative) difference where we live and work,” Beaumont’s statement read.

Ending a ‘historic’ contract

Webster said Opportunity Council held off for a bit before canceling their contract with The Firs.

He said they wanted to see if there would be any change in approach to rescinding the job offer to Taylor, but after it became clear that was The Firs’ final decision, Webster had a conversation with Kirk Potter, the Firs’ Family Retreat Center & Community Ministries Director, about canceling the lease.

“I would say, based on our long, shared tenure as organizations, that he was disappointed but we both stated that we did not leave with any ill will toward the other, we’re just electing to live our values,” Webster said.

The lease provided Opportunity Council with a fully-equipped, commercially-licensed kitchen, which would be used to provide meals for children in Head Start and Early Childhood Assistance and Education preschools throughout Whatcom County, Webster said. The lease paralleled the school year, which complemented The Firs’ busiest schedule of meal production in late spring to early fall, he said.

Opportunity Council staff would produce breakfast, lunch and snacks daily during the school year for around 500 children, Webster said. Staff would take the prepared food to sites in Bellingham, Lynden and Kendall and the nonprofit is looking to expand options throughout the county, he said.

The nonprofit is currently looking for another licensed commercial kitchen that can be operational by late August. Webster said Opportunity Council will be investing in equipment and supplies that they will no longer have at their disposal from the “historic relationship” ending.

The agency acknowledges investing in its own equipment will be an unexpected expense.

“Added expenses will be a real challenge for us, but this is a ‘live-your-values’ moment,” Winter, the agency’s executive director, said. “We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of everyone. This decision embodies that.”

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.