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Civil Unions & Same-sex marriage (SSM) in New Jersey

Part 2: 2007-MAR to 2012-JAN: Couple sought a
location for a civil union. Methodist group sought
freedom to discriminate. Court resolves conflict.

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In this web site:
"SSM" refers to same-sex marriage;
LGBT refers to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals

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This topic is continued from Part 1

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A timeline of major events:

  • 2007-MAR: Harriet Bernstein, 70, and Luisa Paster, a lesbian couple, applied to rent the pavilion Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association of the United Methodist Church, Inc. (OGCMA) in Ocean Grove, NJ, and were refused. They later initiated a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights (DCR). It was the first complaint received by the DCR involving a same-sex couple since civil unions had been first recognized earlier in 2007.

  • 2007-APR-01: The OGCMA suspended on an interim basis the acceptance of all wedding and civil union applications at the pavilion. 1

  • 2007-JUN-30: "Paster and Bernstein celebrated their civil union at a fishing pier in Ocean Grove, a quarter mile from the pavilion. ... By then, the community [had] rallied around the couple, showing support by raising flags around town that symbolized LGBT equality." 2

  • 2007-AUG: The Association filed a federal suit to stop the state's investigation on the grounds that the Association's first amendment rights were being infringed upon. It was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Joel Pisano.

  • 2007-SEP: The Association's tax exempt status was terminated by the DCR because it did not make its property open to the entire public on an equal basis as they had committed to do.

  • 2008-DEC: Frank Vespa-Papaleo, New Jersey director of the DCR found that there was probable cause to credit the lesbian couple's complaint. (A finding of "probable cause" is similar to an indictment in a criminal case.) He found that:
    "... at the time of the complaint and continuing to date, the Boardwalk Pavilion is used by the general public in a variety of ways, including as a place to sit, congregate, picnic, play and to seek shade and shelter from the weather. Signs posted in and on the Boardwalk Pavilion state that smoking, bicycling and skateboarding are prohibited. Other than those restrictions, there are no signs, postings or other visible indications that public use of the structure is prohibited in any way. Based on witness interviews and direct observation, the investigation concludes that, when Respondent was not using the Boardwalk Pavilion for scheduled programs, the casual passerby or user of the Ocean Grove beach or boardwalk would have no reason to conclude that the Boardwalk Pavilion is not open for the same general public use as the boardwalk itself or the uncovered benches situated along that boardwalk.

    In addition, the investigation disclosed that Respondent affirmatively represented to the public and to State government that the Boardwalk Pavilion was open to the public. The investigation disclosed that in July 1989, Respondent applied to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) for a Green Acres real property tax exemption for a number of its properties, including Lot 1, Block 1.01, on which the Boardwalk Pavilion is located. Its initial application stated that the Pavilion was “used for religious services and band concerts.”

    The investigation disclosed that, at a September 7, 1989 public hearing, Neptune Township opposed Respondent’s application for a Green Acres tax exemption. The Township argued that the property would not benefit the general public, but instead would benefit only Respondent because its uses were restricted. In response, Respondent’s representative argued that the Pavilion was generally open and accessible to the public through numerous boardwalk entrances, was used regularly for musical events, band practices and performances and other events including weddings, baptisms and memorial services, as well as religious services." 3

Director Vespa-Papaleo also wrote:

"What our investigation revealed is that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association actually intended the pavilion to be a public space insofar as they even submitted paperwork to state for funding for beach replenishment from the Department of Environment Protection. They indicated and certified that the area was open to the public. For them to suggest that it’s not flies counter to their certification to the state that it is open to the public." 1

According to Gay City News:

"In addition to banning sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, New Jersey state law specifically forbids discrimination against civil union couples by entities that provide goods and services to the public." 4

It appears that the OGCMA had accepted public funds for the maintenance and repairs to the Great Auditorium that had been damaged in a hurricane. 5 In an application for a half million dollar per year property tax exemption, under the state's Green Acres Program, they had allegedly stated that the area was open to the public. According to Wikipedia: U.S. Representative Frank Pallone, Jr., who represents Ocean Grove and surrounding area, stated "They've taken state, federal and local funds by representing that they are open to the public." 5

Ocean Grove United -- a gay positive organization -- commented that they appreciate:

    "... that the DCR has viewed the issue in the same way that we do and has confirmed that the pavilion is not religious in nature but a public accommodation and therefore subject to the NJ Law Against Discrimination. We note that this decision should in no way be considered a precedent for requiring any religious group to endorse, perform, or participate in civil unions, only that a public accommodation must be open for equal use by all, regardless of sexual orientation. We now look forward to the Camp Meeting Association lifting its ban on the use of the pavilion and allowing both marriage and civil union ceremonies to take place there on an equal basis."

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A timeline of major events (Cont'd):

2012-JAN-13: The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey issued a press release discussing the ruling on the previous day by Judge Solomon A. Metzger in the Harriet Bernstein et al., v. Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association case.

Judge Metzger found that:

"... the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association violated the state’s Law Against Discrimination when it denied Ocean Grove residents Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster the use of its boardwalk pavilion for their 2007 civil union ceremony. The association had allowed members of the public to rent the pavilion and had never before declined a permit other than for scheduling conflicts until it received Paster and Bernstein’s reservation request. The association rejected the couple’s application to use the space, stating that civil unions violated its Methodist doctrine. 6

Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, P.C., who represents the couple as a cooperating attorney for the ACLU-NJ, wrote:

"The Camp Meeting Association could have used the pavilion exclusively for its own purposes. The judge found, however, that the association opened the pavilion up to the public and thus was obligated to follow anti-discrimination laws."

Plaintiff Harriet Bernstein said:

“We are pleased with the judge’s findings. 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."

Luisa Paster, the other plaintiff, said:

"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.

Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director, wrote:

"This decision affirms New Jersey’s strong protections against discrimination. When you open your doors to the public, you can’t treat same-sex couples differently."

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The Ocean Grove case continues to be cited:

By the fall of 2013, there have been perhaps a dozen other instances where organizations or companies across the U.S. have been found to have violated human rights legislation because they refused a service to a same-sex couple. But the others have been companies like wedding cake bakers, wedding clothing retailers, wedding photographers, commercial wedding venue locations, etc. The case in Ocean Park NJ is the only instance of which we are aware in which a religious group has been found guilty of a human rights violation involving same-sex couples discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

By the fall of 2013, 13 states and the District of Columbia had legalized SSM. Two or three other states are expected to achieve marriage equality by the end of the year. Many religious and social conservative commentators are attempting to raise fear throughout the country that churches or their clergy will soon be sued if they refuse to marry same-sex couples. The commentators frequently refer to the Ocean Grove case as proof that it might happen. So far, to our knowledge, none of the commentators have included the very important detail that the Methodist group was only subject to human rights legislation because they had first signed a commitment to be a public accommodation. Also they have not mentioned the absolute immunity against prosecution for discrimination that is guaranteed to all clergy, congregations and denominations by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Ruling supports lesbian couple in Ocean Grove," Philadelphia Gay News, undated, at: http://www.epgn.com/
  2. Katie Wang & Allison Peltzman, News Release "Judge Rules in Favor of Same-Sex Couple in Discrimination Case," American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, 2012-JAN-13, at: http://custapp.marketvolt.com/
  3. "Finding of probable clause: Bernstein v. OGCMA" at: Berstein v. OGCMA.pdf. Accessible from the ACLU-NJ news release.
  4. Arthur S. Leonard, "Civil Union ceremony victory in Jersey's Ocean Grove," Gay City News, 2008-DEC-30, at: http://gaycitynews.com/
  5. "Ocean Grove, New Jersey," Wikipedia, as on: 2012-FEB-04, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  6. Text of Solomon A. Metzger's ruling, Harriet Bernstein et al., v. Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, State of New Jersey, Office of Administrative Law, 2012-JAN-12, at: http://www.aclu-nj.org/
  7. "Ocean Grove United," has its web site at: http://www.oceangroveunited.org/
  8. The OCGMA's web site is at: http://oceangrove.org. Their "wedding page" is at: http://oceangrove.org/

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Site navigation: Home > Homosexuality > Same-sex marriage > SSM Menu > New Jersey > here

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Copyright © 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2012-FEB-11
Latest update: 2012-FEB-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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