Sunday, July 1, 2007
The Methodists have their problems, too
In this beautiful seaside hamlet of Ocean Grove a controversy is raging. Apparently, and this I did not know, the Methodist Church owns all the land and the homeowners only rent the land to on which to build their homes. How awkward! Well, NJ has now has passed a Civil Union Law that lets Gay and Lesbian People marry or their version ofit, but not in Ocean Grove! The residents say that the ban applys to the entire village, but I was only able to find an article that referred to the beach pavillion. The church also says that I cannot go to the beach befoew 12:00PM on Sundays and the town cannot sell alcohol.
Civil union law has first test on boardwalk
Lesbian couple fights religious group's denial of Ocean Grove pavilion
Thursday, June 21, 2007
BY ROBERT SCHWANEBERG
On summer Sunday mornings, the boardwalk pavilion in Ocean Grove serves as a place of worship. At other times, it has been a venue for bands and gospel choirs, a shelter from sun and rain for beachgoers and an idyllic seaside setting for weddings.
But when Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster tried to book it for their civil union ceremony, they say they were turned down by the Camp Meeting Association, the Methodist organization that owns all land in the Ocean Grove section of Neptune Township, including the pavilion.
"I was shocked," said Bernstein, who has lived in Ocean Grove for a decade. "It was the first time in all my years living here that I suddenly felt marginalized."
On Tuesday, Bernstein and Paster filed a formal complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. It contends the Camp Meeting Association violated their rights under the law that created civil unions and banned discrimination against persons entering them. That act took effect Feb. 19.
The case appears to be the first of its kind brought to the Division on Civil Rights under the new civil union act, division Director J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo said. He said he knew of no similar case in the courts.
Bernstein said she and Paster have been together more than seven years, formed a domestic partnership as soon as they became available in 2004 and have planned their civil union ceremony for Sept. 30.
The boardwalk pavilion, which heterosexual couples have rented for weddings for a fee of $250, seemed the perfect spot, Bernstein said.
"We wanted to have it in Ocean Grove because that's where we live," Bernstein said. "We wanted to be near the ocean because we love the ocean; that's why we live here. It also offers some shelter in case of inclement weather."
According to their complaint, in March they filed a rental application along with a $75 deposit. It was returned, they said, with the explanation that the Camp Meeting Association "would not permit its facilities to be used for civil union ceremonies."
Scott Hoffman, chief administrative officer of the Camp Meeting Association, said it stopped renting the pavilion for weddings as of April 1. Beyond that, he said the complaint was being reviewed with the association's lawyer.
"Because it's a legal proceeding, that's about the extent of what we can do in talking about it," Hoffman said.
John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va.-based organization that defends religious liberty, said the Camp Meeting Association is "in the twilight zone of a new area of the law."
"Laws like this should have exceptions for religious organizations and religiously owned property. That avoids the conflict," he said.
Vespa-Papaleo said New Jersey's law contains an exception for religious organizations when they act as employers, but not when they offer accommodations to the public.
"We have taken it as a public accommodation case," Vespa-Papaleo said.
Although mayors who opt to perform marriages must also perform civil unions, Attorney General Stuart Rabner ruled clergy members have discretion "in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs."
But Stephen Hyland, a lawyer from Westmont in Camden County who handles legal problems of same-sex couples, said that does not resolve the Ocean Grove case because it is about where the ceremony will be held, not who will officiate. Bernstein said Neptune's deputy mayor, Randy Bishop, agreed to perform the civil union.
Vespa-Papaleo said his office will attempt to mediate the dispute, as it does with all complaints.
"We hope the parties will agree to mediation," he said. "If that does not occur, we will certainly investigate, and if we find there is a violation of the law, we will aggressively prosecute."
Robert Schwaneberg may be reached at email@example.com or (609) 989-0324.