A New Jersey judge ruled last week that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist group, violated state anti-discrimination laws when it prevented a lesbian couple from using its boardwalk pavilion for the purpose of entering into a civil union.
The couple, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Pastor, were in 2007 denied the right to use the pavilion — which is within the religious group’s grounds and is routinely offered out to other members of the public for a variety of functions– because the Methodist group’s administrators thought a civil union went against their convictions. When a complaint was made the group argued that such a decision could be decided based on religious freedom grounds, in effect that they had a right to discriminate based on their ideas of what an acceptable relationship was because the pavilion sits on their land. Lawyers acting on behalf of the couple argued that the pavilion’s tax exempt status was in fact dependent on equal access.
In an opinion released last Thursday, Judge Solomon A. Metzger of the Office of Administrative Law found that the association had broken its contract with the state by denying the couple access because the pavilion’s tax exempt status meant the group, so far as overseeing use of the pavilion, had to abide by the state’s anti-discrimination rules.
“The Camp Meeting Association could have used the pavilion exclusively for its own purposes,” said Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, P.C., who represents the couple as a cooperating attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “The judge found, however, that the association opened the pavilion up to the public and thus was obligated to follow anti-discrimination laws.”
“We are pleased with the judge’s findings,” said Harriet Bernstein. “When we first started planning our civil union, we had no idea that it would come to this. We weren’t asking the association to change their beliefs. We just wanted them to give us the same opportunity to use a beautiful space that we had seen open for public use.”
Paster and Bernstein celebrated their civil union at a fishing pier in Ocean Grove, a quarter mile from the pavilion on June 30, 2007. By then, the community rallied around the couple, showing support by raising flags around town that symbolized LGBT equality.
“Fortunately, out of this painful incident, Ocean Grove residents have a renewed sense of community and have come together to support equality,” said Luisa Paster.
However, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association’s attorney, Jim Campbell of the Alliance Defense Fund, has said the association is considering all options for an appeal and told Patch.com that it believed the association’s religious rights had been damaged by this ruling:
“The government should not be able to force a private religious organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own beliefs,” Campbell said by telephone on Friday. “That’s why Ocean Grove is asserting its constitutional rights and that’s why Ocean Grove ultimately believes that the law is on its side.”
According to the ACLU the judge’s decision now goes before the Director of the Division on Civil Rights, who has 45 days to adopt, modify or reject the ruling before it becomes final. An appeal of that final decision can be made to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court.
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