In 2015, a Nashville swingers club sought the First Amendment’s religious-freedom protections, to save itself from a wicked zoning problem.
This story was reported in December 2015 and aired on Reveal— a radio show produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting— in February 2016, as part of an hour-long episode on the “religious-freedom loophole.”
I meet Al Woods in the lobby of a hotel in Nashville where he’s throwing a swinger’s party. He’s a tall, skinny Vietnam vet— white hair, glasses, terrific posture. He moved here from Arkansas, in 1980, with his second wife.
“I’d met her at a swingers party in Little Rock,” he says. “Her and her date had just met at a Church of Christ singles meeting. He said, ‘Well you know I got this little bar that we could go to…’ And she came to the bar…” and ended up with Al.
After the couple moved to Nashville, Al took over a bar that his sister had been struggling to run. He had a solution. “On the marquee outside, I put ‘Swingers welcome,’” Al says. “And that’s when people started coming in.”
By the late-1990s, his swingers’ club bought its own building, in a crummy part of downtown—which eventually got less crummy, with restaurants and bars popping up.
In 2014, a developer bought up most of the sex club’s block, for condos, including the carpet shop across the street.
The carpet shop’s exit created a problem for the club: the shop had rented its parking lot to Al’s club in the evenings. No carpet shop, no parking lot. “We had to move,” Al says.
Still, the neighborhood’s new swankiness had an upside for the club, which cleared a million bucks on the sale of its own building.
Al found what he thought was a terrific new spot, in a suburb called Madison: A vacant medical center. It had a big parking lot… and lots of exam rooms, for anyone who wanted a little privacy.
Al’s friend Larry Roberts— the club’s lawyer and a longtime member— remembers telling Al it was a terrible idea to locate in Madison. “I said, You’re going to create a firestorm,” Larry recalls, “this close to Goodpasture.”
Goodpasture. That’s Goodpasture Christian School, a fancy private school— Johnny Cash’s kids went there, back in the day— and it operates right. Across. The Street. From the site that Al was looking at for his sex club.
Al insisted he had done his homework on the zoning. “He said ‘No,’” Larry recalls. “Said, ‘This is a permissible use.’ Said, ‘We have a printout.’ Sure enough, he had a printout, and it was a permissible use.” This was, technically, a club, and clubs were OK.
Larry was unconvinced. Al bought the place anyway.
Ricky Perry is president of Goodpasture Christian School. He drives me around the campus and shows me how close the club’s building is. It’s just down the block from the doors to the school’s auditorium, where the school’s first-graders would be performing for their parents that evening.
“If you had your own children,” Perry asks me, “would you want to there to be a business like that in close proximity to them?”
He says he found out about the club’s purchase from an anonymous note. It was from someone who claimed to be a member of the swinger’s club.
“They, as an adult, were OK with that kind of lifestyle,” he says. “But they were very concerned this was going to be near a school.”
He started making calls, lining up allies, talking through the angles.
“We looked at everything we thought we could do— and decided that zoning was legally a way to thwart that,” he says.
The Nashville Metro Council, which has jurisdiction over Madison, started considering a new ordinance, to change the zoning for the property Al had bought, and block the club.
A few months later, the new zoning ordinance passed. Al’s permits to renovate his building were dead.
This is when Larry Roberts and Al Woods trotted out what it’s probably fair to call their “Hail Mary” play: They said, Oh, wait. Did we say we’re a sex club? Oh, sorry, our bad — actually, we’re a religious institution. Call us the “United Fellowship Center.”
They submitted a new permit application. Here’s how Al recalls it: “We take the same plans and all we do is re-name the rooms on it— and made a ‘sanctuary’ instead of a ‘dance area.’”
The two dungeons? One was re-labeled “Handbell Room,” the other became “Choir Room.” But the decor stayed the same— painted black and red with wooden bars running to the ceiling.
Larry Roberts says they even came up with a doctrine, a variation on the Ten Commandments:
“Thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not have sex with any person other than thy spouse— without the knowledge and consent of your spouse,” he says. “How any of those religious do-gooders could object to that, I don’t know.”
Also— Al and Larry said—nobody would actually have sex on premises. Some swingers clubs do operate that way, as Larry explains. “People might meet each other, and go someplace else,” he says. “But then, frankly, they do that at churches anyway.”
Al says they submitted the new paperwork shortly after the zoning ordinance passed. “That was on a Monday,” he says. “They gave us a permit on Wednesday.”
BOOM. Problem solved.
Legally, it is very hard to regulate religious institutions, says Nelson Tebbe, who teaches constitutional law at Brooklyn Law School and has a Ph.D. in religious studies.
Courts tend to be very reluctant to weigh in on theological questions of any kind, Tebbe says, for two reasons.
First: They don’t teach theology in law school. “But second, and I think more more deeply,” he says, “courts believe it would be unfair— that it would be, in some ways, wrong— for the government to decide that a particular theology does or doesn’t require a particular action.”
That’s what religious pluralism is. If you say your religion requires you to go to sex parties… who is a judge to disagree?
However, Tebbe says, there is another big issue that courts do feel comfortable making judgments about: Is a professed religious belief sincerely held?
And courts routinely make judgments about sincerity— call it credibility. “When a witness comes before the court, courts feel that they’re able to judge the credibility of a witness, right?” Tebbe says. “It’s something they do all the time.”
On that basis, Tebbe told me, if he were the lawyer for the swingers club, he probably would not have advised them to push the church idea too hard. It looks awfully… convenient to suddenly become a religious institution when your back’s against the wall.
However, Bill Herbert, Nashville top zoning administrator, tells me he considered the what’s-a-church issue to be a live issue, calling it the “million dollar question.”
“At the end of the day, if they tell us that they are a church, we have to take their word for it, until proven otherwise,” he said.
Al and Larry filed their new paperwork in April 2015. It took the club a while to start making renovations — updating bathrooms for people with disabilities, adding some new electrical wiring for sound and lights.
It took a few months to get the work done, but eventually inspectors started coming around and approving it.
And then, September 25, the very last inspector came, from the fire department.
Al says the fire marshall just said No. No way. We’re not doing this. I’m not inspecting this place. It’s not a church. This place is obviously a swingers club.
“I said, ‘Well, it’s a building. Right now, your job is to approve it, if it’s safe or not safe,’” Al recalls. “He says, ‘I can’t— this is above my pay grade. I’m not getting involved in this.’”
The fire inspector, Darryl Rogan, won’t talk with me on tape, and he won’t discuss what was said. But he does confirm: He went to the site in September 25, but he didn’t do the inspection. The place was permitted as a church, he tells me, and in his view this place wasn’t a church.
It seems that the decision— is it a church or not?– was up to the zoning director, Bill Herbert— who had already approved the plans.
However, Al Woods and Larry Roberts didn’t push Herbert to get the inspection carried out so the Fellowship Center could open as planned.
What they did instead… was to advertise their fully-renovated building for rent— specifically, to be used as a church.
Curtis Jenkins, pastor of the Church of His Enduring Grace, recalls seeing the ad— on Craigslist— in October 2015: A giant building for just $2,000 a month. “It was almost too good to be true,” Jenkins recalls. “It’s like—ehh, somebody’s trying to run a scam.”
But a few days later, Al Woods gave them a tour, and Jenkins signed a three-year lease.
When I visited, on a Sunday morning in early December 2015, Jenkins and his family were getting the place ready to hold services. They were tweaking the sound system, putting up decorations— the walls were still painted a kind of mottled black— and praying.
So, the Church of His Enduring Grace is settled in, and plans for the sex club to operate at this location— as the Fellowship Center— appear to be kaput.
Leaving a question: Why didn’t Al Woods push for that fire inspection and keep trying to open his haven for swingers?
He won’t exactly say. And sometimes he makes it sound like the whole church idea had been a joke.
“I think Al was just out of money,” says his friend and attorney, Larry Roberts. “I know that his water was disconnected one time.”
There wasn’t any revenue coming in. Between buying the new place and all the repairs, Al had spent the million bucks he’d gotten from selling the old building.
And even with no mortgage, the new building carried some big costs: Taxes and insurance run about $2,000 a month.
Al used to have other businesses besides the club— magazines for swingers, a strip club, a line of “amateur” porn videos back when VHS was a thing.
“I’ve made money, I’ve lost money,” he says. “Made a lot of money when 900 numbers were popular, you know? Made a bunch of bad investments with people.”
Eventually, in 2009, a debilitating bout with cancer forced him to retire from everything but the swingers club.
He says he’s comfortable living on his social security and his VA pension— but he can’t carry the building too.
And… pushing forward with the whole “swingers church” idea would have run into another problem.
Even if they had fought the zoning battle and won— even if they had re-opened— another important group would have been unhappy about the idea of the club calling itself a religious institution.
It seems that Al’s members wouldn’t have stood for it.
Al still throws parties a couple times a month at local hotels. I went to one.
I met a couple who wouldn’t give me their names. They told me they’d been married for 39 years. He said he can’t have sex, because of an injury, and the club had been… an accommodation.
They also told me that the idea of the club calling itself a church had completely rubbed them the wrong way.
HIM: I was uncomfortable with that terminology.
DW: Because church is important to you?
HER: Yes! It is. Yes.
HIM: The word of God is important to me, yes. Using a church to have sex is wrong.
HER: Yes. Very wrong.
DW: And if they’d gone through with that, you might’ve had to have gone someplace else?
HER: Sure. I wouldn’t have gone in.
The party that night felt sad. There weren’t a lot of people there, not a lot of mixing, very little dancing. One couple called it lame— not in a mean way, more like a lament.
The next day, I asked Al Woods how disappointed he is by the whole episode.
“That’s life,” he said. “Can’t do anything about it. You just keep going. You know? And — not for the religious reason, but— things happen for a reason sometimes, you know? And it either makes you stronger, or it doesn’t.”
Later, I called Al, to ask him another question: What about the people like that couple I met at the party— who thought it was just WRONG to call a sex club a church?
He said: “I don’t care if I call it a bar, or a church or a humane society or whatever. I need the income.”
For now, he’s getting that income — in the form of rent — from the Church of His Enduring Grace.
UPDATE: By May 2016, the club had evicted the Church of His Enduring Grace for non-payment of rent, according to a local news report.
In February 2017, Al Woods told me the club was holding what he called “meet and greets” at the building on Saturday nights: No admission charge– donations only– and no liquor sales, and no sex on-premises.
In May 2017, Nashville officials sued to shut the club down, after inspectors said they witnessed people having sex there.