The New York Times
Civil Union Pressure
By JILL P. CAPUZZO,
nytimes.com on the Web, August 14, 2007
An Ocean Grove church group is suing
New Jersey, saying that the state is pressuring it to allow a civil union
ceremony for a lesbian couple at its oceanfront pavilion, thereby violating the
group’s First Amendment rights.
The suit, filed electronically with United States District Court on Saturday,
comes after the group, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, turned down a
request in June by Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster of Ocean Grove to hold a
civil union ceremony in the Boardwalk Pavilion on Sept. 30. The couple
subsequently filed a discrimination complaint with the New Jersey Division on
Civil Rights against the Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist organization that
owns the pavilion and all the town’s land.
“We’re trying to get the federal court to issue a declaration of the rights the
Ocean Grove Camp Meeting possess,” said Brian Raum, senior counsel for the
Alliance Defense Fund, a family and church rights legal organization that is
representing the Methodist group. “We feel they have the right to use
their facilities for functions that are consistent with their beliefs.”
Following up on the complaint by Ms. Bernstein and Ms. Paster, the Division on
Civil Rights, part of the state attorney general’s office, began an
investigation. By opening a case file, the association’s suit claims the
state has violated the church’s First Amendment rights “by subjecting this
patently religious entity to an illegal investigation and threat of prosecution
under the law,” and causing a chilling effect on the group’s rights to
“unfettered religious expression, association and free exercise of religion.”
Lee Moore, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, called the lawsuit
“premature” since findings from the inquiry have yet to be issued.
“The Division on Civil Rights has a duty to investigate any charges of
discrimination filed with it, and the agency does so in response to nearly 1,300
formal complaints a year,” Mr. Moore said, adding that his office’s attempts at
mediation between the parties had been unsuccessful.
The crux of the argument will rest on the definition of the building in
An open-air structure that faces the ocean, the Boardwalk Pavilion is used for
Sunday worship services, which are typically attended by 500 to 600 people
throughout the summer, and for daily Bible classes. Situated on the
Boardwalk in Ocean Grove, a busy Monmouth County beach town, the pavilion is
also used by members of the public, who regularly sit on the pews to rest or get
out of the sun. The building had been used for wedding ceremonies until
Shortly after the civil union law took effect on Feb. 19, the group stopped
offering the pavilion for weddings in large part to avoid potential conflicts,
Scott Hoffman, the church association’s chief administrative officer, said
“Just because of its location, it doesn’t necessarily look like a church in the
traditional fashion, but it is,” Mr. Hoffman said.
But those who consider the pavilion a public place argue that the Methodist
group is out of line in blocking these ceremonies.
“This is public property by virtue of its public use for many decades,” said
Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay rights advocacy
Stuart Rabner, who was then the attorney general, specified in a letter offering
advice on applying the rules for New Jersey’s civil union law that those who
regularly performed marriage ceremonies may be compelled to perform civil unions
under the state’s antidiscrimination laws, but that clergy members could decline
if performing such ceremonies would conflict with “sincerely held religious
According to a charter granted by the state in the 1870s, all of the land in
Ocean Grove, a mile-square section of Neptune Township, as well as the
Boardwalk, the beach and 1,000 feet into the ocean is owned by the Camp Meeting
In recent years, Ocean Grove has also become one of the state’s most gay
friendly communities and the two populations have coexisted peaceably. But
with the filing of the lawsuit, and the Camp Meeting Association’s hiring of the
Alliance Defense Fund, some gay activists see that relationship changing.
“By enlisting one of the most radical groups in the country to represent it, the
Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association has declared war not only on New Jersey’s
gay community, but on the progressive values of millions of people in this
state,” Mr. Goldstein said.