A ministry that follows the dictates of its faith is engaging in wrongdoing, according to a New Jersey judge who recommended today that the state Division on Civil Rights find the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association violated the state’s nondiscrimination law.
“The respondent violated the [Law Against Discrimination] when it refused to conduct a civil-union ceremony for Ms. Bernstein and Ms. Paster,” wrote Solomon Metzger, an administrative law judge whose determination will become final if not overturned by the Division of Civil Rights.
“Respondent opposes same-sex unions as a matter of religious belief, and in 2007 found itself on the wrong side of recent changes in the law.”
The seaside location has been popular for years for weddings, but the association, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, determined it could not biblically allow same-sex ceremonies to take place on its property.
So when Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster signed up for such a ceremony, they were turned down. They filed the discrimination complaint, and the state’s Division on Civil Rights joined their cause.
“The government should not be able to force a private Christian organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs,” said Jim Campbell, a litigation staff counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund.
“Religious groups have the right to use their private property in a way that is consistent with their beliefs. That right, protected by both the New Jersey and U.S. constitutions, obviously trumps any law enacted by the state’s legislature.”
ADF, which represented the ministry, said would it consider the next step in the case, but its argument is that the ministry is exercising its constitutionally protected right to use its private property in a way consistent with its beliefs.
The women made their request in 2007, and the association declined because such an event would have violated its religious convictions.
ADF had argued that the association’s evangelistic goals include even classical concerts and Saturday-night family entertainment.
“Through these events, the association connects with people who might not attend its worship services and encourages them to attend those services in the future. For example, the association begins its Saturday-night family entertainment events with a brief prayer and typically a quick promotion of its upcoming religious services and events. These are just some of the diverse ways that the association strives, in all its programs, to reach the entire community with the love and Gospel message of Jesus Christ.”
Allowing various events at its pavilion, a wood-framed, open-air structure overlooking the Atlantic, was part of such an outreach, the arguments said.
Metzger’s opinion noted that since the dispute erupted, the state denied a portion of the organization’s tax exemption relating to the piece of property, because it “was not available on an equal basis.”
Ocean Grove then requested and obtained a tax exemption for the property under a different application standard.
“As a religious organization that deems same-gender unions sinful, respondent is loath to be associated with such ceremonies and maintains that compelling this through the LAD violates its right of expressive association, free speech and free exercise of religion,” Metzger said.
But he wrote, “That it had never before declined a wedding, other than for scheduling conflicts, only means that it had never before been asked to permit a same-gender service.”