The story began last fall, when a fixture in downtown Nashville called The Social Club sold its building and purchased a new one in a run-down office park several miles to the east.
The new building is geographically isolated at the end of a dead-end street, but it is near the back of Goodpasture Christian School, a large private school serving pre-school through high school children.
It might have been years before school officials and parents learned what was going on inside The Social Club — its website says it is “a private club for the enjoyment of both men and women … to engage in any sexual activity” — if someone had not sent anonymous letters to the school president and the local councilwoman. Both say the person who tipped them off claimed to be a concerned club member, although they don’t know that for sure.
Parents and religious leaders were called on to pack the Metro Nashville Council chambers to support a zoning change to prevent the club from opening. That’s when the club, which had spent $750,000 on the building and begun renovations, suddenly transformed into a church.
The United Fellowship Center’s plans are nearly identical to those of The Social Club but with some different labels. The dance floor has become the sanctuary. Two rooms labeled “dungeon” are now “choir” and “handbells.” Forty-nine small, private rooms remain, but most of them have become prayer rooms.
Larry Roberts is the attorney for the club-turned-church. He previously vowed to take the city to court. Now, he says, it’s the city that will have to sue.
“The ball is in Metro’s court … We’ve now gotten a permit to meet as a church, and a church is something that cannot be defined under the U.S. Constitution,” he said.
Roberts said church members will “meet and have fellowship” in the new building, but no sex will take place there. “If people have something else in mind, they will go somewhere else.”
Several of those who opposed The Social Club say they are skeptical of the change.
“I find it hard to believe that they’ve invested that kind of money and they’re just going to change the activity,” Goodpasture President Ricky Perry said. “I really hope that it’s true.”
Metro Zoning Administrator Bill Herbert said the department takes applicants at their word, so inspectors are treating the building as a church. As long as the United Fellowship Center is in compliance with codes, it will receive permission to operate.
“If it is not operating as a church, that’s an enforcement issue,” he said. “We can tell them to cease and desist, and if they refuse we can enforce it through the courts.”
If it turns out to continue operating as a swingers club, it could also face trouble with the state after lawmakers passed a bill last month disallowing private sex clubs within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, day cares and houses of worship.
Metro Councilwoman Karen Bennett is a Goodpasture graduate who sponsored the legislation to change the zoning for private clubs. She said she will be watching to make sure the United Fellowship Center truly does operate as a church.
“I’ve heard many, many people say they’re planning to attend when it opens,” she said.