Florida church hosting 'naked paint parties' investigated as nightclub

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
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PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (Christian Examiner) -- Law enforcement officials investigating The Life Center -- an entity that identifies itself as a church but has a $20 cover charge and sells obscene T-shirts -- see more similarities in the facility to a nightclub than to a church.

The Life Center, open until 5 a.m. each day, has been running nightly activities targeting spring breakers. A sign out front reads, "Spring Break Amnesia, The Tabernacle" and the "church" has been hosting "naked paint parties" and Sundays with the "sexiest ladies on the beach," according to local news reports.

The mobile ATM parked out front grabbed the sheriff's attention, so he went inside to check it out.

"You can paint your body or you can wear a toga or you can do this," Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen told WJHG news. "Nasty Night's coming up, Wet and Wild's coming up. Maybe it's a different kind of church. I don't know."

The Life Center Church has a $20 cover charge which leaders say is a donation.

"You turn around and you look at the walls on the church, and you see T-shirts with graphic explicit sexual pictures on them, and I'm scratching my head," McKeithen said. "How can this be a church, and this is going on?"

Tabernacle promoters told NewsChannel 7 they provide a safe place for spring breakers to sober up, but the sheriff disagrees, and so does Panama City Beach Police Chief Drew Whitman.

"It's very disturbing, especially inside our city limits here in Bay County," Whitman said. "I think were better than that."

Right on the front door of The Life Center aka The Tabernacle is a sign noting its strict anti-drug and anti-alcohol policy, but on their Facebook page they sell T-shirts that say things like, "I hate being sober."

Marcus Bishop owns and operates The Life Center/The Tabernacle. Whitman met with him. Despite selling the entity as a place of worship, it's more of a place to party, the police chief told TV news reporter, Kelly Baumgarten.

"He's running it as a night club, and if they would've filled the proper procedures to get the right permits to open as a night club, it would've been great," Whitman said.

This isn't the first time the law has dealt with Bishop. He has previous arrests on various charges.

"Yes, that's concerning," McKeithen said. "But he's not the only one out there with a criminal record that's running a enterprise like this, but he's the only one out there flying under the colors of a church that's doing this, and that's very disturbing to me. ...

"There's something wrong with this picture," the Sheriff continued. "You got monies not accountable going through the door. Because it's a church, because it's 'donations' there's no accountability for it. That's a scam, folks."

TheTabernacle is open every night until 5 a.m. for its clientele. Since The Life Center is also a church, in addition to not paying taxes, they are exempt from the city ordinance that forces clubs and bars to close at 2 a.m.

Property Appraiser Dan Sowell sided with law enforcement. He told the News Herald 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, March 10.

"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."