A local church that has been hosting naked paint parties and slumber-party Sundays with the “sexiest ladies on the beach” will now have to pay taxes on the property as officers investigate the church’s practices, authorities said Tuesday.
The Life Center: A Spiritual Community, 9721 Thomas Drive, has been up and running its seven-days-a-week party schedule as Amesia: The Tabernacle since Feb. 28. But The Tabernacle, which caters to college students on vacation, has caught the attention of more than just party-seeking spring breakers.
Since ATMs and a banner promoting “iDrink” appeared out front of The Life Center, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office and Panama City Beach Police Department investigators have began taking a closer look at the church. Owned by Markus Q. Bishop, former pastor of Faith Christian Family Church, officials said the club has been engaging in activities unbefitting of a church.
Bishop could not be reached Tuesday for a comment on this story.
A sign on the front of The Tabernacle stated the events are alcohol and drug free and donations go back to the church. Promoters said it is a church by day and youth ministry by night.
Sheriff Frank McKeithen said it is a “blatant slap in the face” to taxpayers and law enforcement.
“They’re trying to get around the laws, and they’re using the church to get there,” McKeithen said.
Since a Facebook post from BCSO questioned the integrity of the club, highlighting that the club often hosts adult entertainment, Club Amnesia has shut down its website. However, when the website was available, it boasted a Sunday night event called “Slumber,” a pajama and lingerie party hosted by “the sexiest ladies on the beach.” Raves take place weekly along with an “Anything But Clothes” paint party. And Wednesday nights are reserved for an event called “Wet n Wild,” a water-themed event where “white water meets Tabernacle PCB with a little twerkin’,” the website stated.
“I’ve been in a lot of nightclubs and I’ve been in a lot of churches,” said PCBPD Chief Drew Whitman. “That isn’t a church.”
Patrons are charged $20 at the door, which is called a donation. And T-shirts depicting stick figures performing oral sex on one another and the text “I hate being sober” adorn the walls.
Whitman and McKeithen said it is not the nature of the events that has piqued their attention. Several similar events are hosted at clubs just east of Club Amnesia. However, the business does not have alcohol permits or appropriate licenses, is zoned as a church and has been tax-exempt as a church for years, McKeithen said.
Property Appraiser Dan Sowell sided with law enforcement. He said the lot had been tax exempt as a church until word spread about the activities being held within. The property’s tax-exempt status was changed Tuesday morning.
“A bottle club, charging $20 at the door and selling obscene T-shirts is not being used as a church,” Sowell said. “A God-fearing, God-honoring church in January does not sponsor this type of debauchery in March.”
Amnesia’s website reopened Tuesday night with a disclaimer attached.
“The Tabernacle is a drug and alcohol free community for the youth to go for spring break at night to interact with each other in a fun safe environment,” the website now states. “iDrink sponsors this community reach out program with their non-alcoholic bottled water product only. We thank all of our patrons that have attended and will be attending our safe environment.”
The site includes an application sheet to become an “ambassador” of The Tabernacle and “help get the word out about our safe place to go instead of wondering the strip.”
This is not the first time Bishop has faced scrutiny from county tax officials. In 2004, he challenged a property tax assessment on his the 10,000 square-foot, five-bedroom, six-bathroom home he lived in, saying the mansion was a parsonage and should be tax exempt. A string of rulings over years went in favor of Bishop.
Sowell said he also has changed the tax exempt status of that property.
Bishop is currently on probation after pleading to a misdemeanor battery charge that surfaced after a 16-year-old girl said he made unwanted sexual advances toward her.