People explain why they’re protesting outside The Firs
With pride flags and signs stating things such as “Love thy neighbor” and “God doesn’t exclude,” a little more than 100 people showed up early Monday morning, June 24, to protest on the sidewalks in front of a religious nonprofit organization that fired a Bellingham teenager over his sexual orientation in early June.
The protest was organized in a private Facebook group that now has more than 700 members after word spread that The Firs fired 18-year-old Jace Taylor from being a summer camp counselor with Fircreek day camp for being gay. Taylor had posted a picture with his boyfriend on social media.
Cherrelyn Seegers, the protest organizer, said Monday that “love is love” and that being a Christian and LGBTQ can be the same thing.
“Everyone is God’s child, and we all deserve to have a place in our Christian homes, in our faith-based organizations, with absolute acceptance and inclusion,” Seegers said. “They have the opportunity to embrace and include.”
The Firs Executive Director Tom Beaumont confirmed in a statement to The Bellingham Herald that Taylor was fired for his sexual orientation, stating that Taylor did not align with the nonprofit’s statements of faith.
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.
Under federal law it is illegal to discriminate against or deny someone employment based on their sexual orientation. Under Washington state law, the way it is written, 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 and of counsel with the firm Teller and Associates.
The Firs’ summer camps started Monday, with parents dropping their children off from 7:30 to 9 a.m. near the Cable Street headquarters. Protesters, both young and old, showed up at approximately 7 a.m., with many having large rainbow flags, symbolizing support for the LGBTQ community.
Taylor was not present at the protest, but his family issued a statement saying they were supportive of the efforts.
Numerous parents have pulled their children from the summer camp programs, which Beaumont said Friday accounted for a loss of 4% to 7% in registrations. The Opportunity Council also announced Friday it was ending its more than 25-year kitchen lease with the organization. Most recently, knitting group The Knit Sibs, who has held its retreats at The Firs for the past seven years, canceled its registration for October of this year.
On various social media sites, other community members have commented saying they stand by The Firs’ decision and will continue to support the nonprofit.
Beaumont said in an interview with The Herald Monday that The Firs’ main purpose of serving and loving kids has not changed, but that the organization is having conversations evaluating the recent circumstances that led to the protest.
Beaumont, who has been in leadership with The Firs for the past 35 years, said he respected the right for people to protest, and that he wanted to be sure the first day of the camps was still fun.
Beaumont said the nonprofit’s doctrinal statements are tenets for the organization that outline what it believes about the Bible and Jesus. He said it’s important that camp counselors are aligned with the organization’s statements of faith, because they’re on the front lines dealing with kids. All kids are accepted at the camps, Beaumont said.
Discussions are taking place with the board of directors, as well as other leadership within The Firs, about what putting those statements into action looks like within the community, Beaumont said. He said those conversations are still happening.
“We want to make sure our doctrines, when they have feet, that they’re doing what we want them to do. It’s one thing to write it on a piece of paper, and it’s another thing to carry out what that means. That process will be something we will really pick up to look at in a more specific way than we have in the past,” Beaumont told The Herald. “We’re not just turning our back to this sort of thing.”
Beaumont said it’s important for parents to know that if they bring their children to The Firs that they will be safe, both physically and emotionally. He said that the organization wants to grow and listen to the community’s concerns and maintain their trust.
“We need to think as we move forward about the kind of messages and signals we send out, to continue to affirm with them that you can bring your kids, and you can bring your kids to our programs without fears,” Beaumont said.
All about love
Harold Nivem, 68, said he showed up Monday to protest because he wanted to raise awareness and show support.
Nivem said the group’s message Monday was “all about love.” He said The Firs has the ability to change its policies and enlighten itself. While he supports the opportunities The Firs provides kids and families in Whatcom County, Nivem said sometimes it requires a push from the community “to say this is not acceptable.”
Nivem said he hoped to “fan the flames of love, because these are trying times right now. We’ve got to do the right thing.”
Samantha Poteet and Hannah Kohl said they came to the protest to show support for all youth in Bellingham, and to show that they don’t support organizations that discriminate against people “for things that are out of their control.”
“We’re all humans. We all came here and are the way we are, and we really just need to support each other in all the ways we are in the world,” Poteet said. “Just be a better human.”
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Many honked, cheered or waved as they passed by the group. Several houses that face Firs’ property also hung large rainbow flags from their fences or doorways.
One person who was driving by asked out of his car window why the group chose to protest in front of a kids camp, rather than at City Hall. No counter-protesters showed up.
Gary Lazarus said he attended Monday because he lives several blocks from The Firs. He said he believes it’s hypocritical for an organization to accept the children of LGBTQ parents or LGBTQ children, themselves, at the camps, but then not allow them to hold leadership positions.
The outcomes the group wanted varied, with some just wanting awareness, others wanting the Equal Opportunity Employment statement taken off The Firs’ employment application and website, or others advocating for a change in management. Many said they’d like The Firs to change their policies to be more inclusive.