Attorney Richard Vetstein brings us another real estate court case. Discrimination and church doctrine crash head-to-head in a case about two men who wanted to buy a church property to build an events center.
James Fairbanks and Alain Beret, married business partners from Sutton, had been searching for the perfect property for nearly two years when they discovered Oakhurst, an aging mansion on 26 beautiful acres in Northbridge. The former retreat center, which was affiliated with the Diocese of Worcester and had been on the market for some time, would be the ideal spot for their next venture: an inn that would host weddings and other big events, as reported by the Boston Globe. When the Diocese of Worcester unexpectedly dropped out of negotiations with them in June, Fairbanks and Beret were shocked — and flummoxed. Then, they say, a church attorney inadvertently forwarded their broker an e-mail from Monsignor Thomas Sullivan, chancellor of the diocese, advising a church broker that he was no longer interested in selling to Fairbanks and Beret “because of a potentiality of gay marriages” there.
Sullivan wrote: “I just went down the hall and discussed it with the bishop. Because of the potentiality of gay marriages there, something you shared with us yesterday, we are not interested in going forward with these buyers. I think they’re shaky anyway. So, just tell them that we will not accept their revised plan and the diocese is making new plans for the property. You find the language.”
The couple has filed what could be a landmark lawsuit in Worcester Superior Court against Sullivan, the bishop, the church’s real estate agent, and the nonprofit retreat center, the House of Affirmation, alleging they discriminated against Beret and Fairbanks on the basis of sexual orientation in the course of a real estate negotiation, violating state law. A copy of the Complaint can be found on my outside blog here.
A spokesperson for the church told The Globe that the church, as a matter of policy, will not sell properties where Masses have been celebrated to people who plan to host same-sex weddings. The church will not sell to developers who plan to transform them into abortion clinics either, he said — or to bars, lounges, or other kinds of uses that church officials deem inappropriate. “We wouldn’t sell our churches and our properties to any of a number of things that would reflect badly on the church,” he said. “These buildings are sacred to the memory of Catholics.”
In an even more ironic twist, the Diocese previously used the mansion for a retreat center for pedophile priests, according to Banker & Tradesman.
Watching this case play out will certainly be very interesting both from a legal and political perspective. Massachusetts — the birthplace of gay marriage — is one of the few states in the country which outlaws housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. One of the questions will be whether the Church is covered under the anti-discrimination law given their religious stance against homosexuals and gay marriage.
Also, as I pointed out to a reporter covering this story, the church could have negotiated a restriction on the future use of the property, which is common for sales involving open space, recreational use and such. It appears that the church did not do this, but instead came up with a pre-textual reason after the fact to support their decision not to proceed with the sale due to the gay marriage issue. It’s certainly a very interesting case…
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