Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Ocean Grove, NJ redux
Group Loses Tax Break Over Gay Union Issue
from todays NY Times
By JILL P. CAPUZZO
A boardwalk pavilion in the seaside town of Ocean Grove, N.J., that has been at the center of a battle over gay civil union ceremonies has lost its tax-exempt status because the state ruled it no longer met the requirements as a place open to all members of the public.
In a letter to the administrator of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist organization that owns the pavilion property, the state commissioner of environmental protection, Lisa Jackson, declined to recertify the pavilion as eligible for a real estate tax exemption it has enjoyed since 1989 under the state’s Green Acres Program, but did renew the tax-exempt status of the rest of the boardwalk and the beach, also owned by the association.
The issue arose after the association, which has owned the land, the beach and 1,000 feet of the sea itself since 1870, rejected the requests of two lesbian couples to have their civil union ceremonies at the Boardwalk Pavilion.
The couples complained to the State Division on Civil Rights, which began a discrimination investigation. The association sued the state, claiming that the investigation violated its First Amendment rights because civil unions were contrary to the beliefs of the United Methodist Church.
A federal district court judge refused last month to halt the investigation.
In a letter dated Saturday that revoked the longstanding certification, Ms. Jackson, the environmental protection commissioner, wrote, “It is clear that the pavilion is not open to all persons on an equal basis.”
The administrator of the Camp Meeting Association, Scott Hoffman, said in a written statement that “the Camp Meeting is reviewing the letter. However, it is worth noting that over 99 percent of the Camp Meeting’s land was recertified as tax-exempt.”
Every three years since 1989, the association has applied for, and received, tax exemptions for its boardwalk, beach and the pavilion under the Green Acres Program, designed to encourage the use of privately owned lands for public recreation and conservation. This is the first time any part of its application has been turned down.
Facing a deadline of last Saturday mandated by the Green Acres rules, Ms. Jackson said it was important to make clear where her department stood on the definition of open property.
“When people hear the words ‘open space,’ we want them to think not just of open air and land, but that it is open to all people,” said Ms. Jackson. “And when the public subsidizes it with tax breaks, it goes with the expectation that it is not going to be parsed out, whether it be by activity or any particular beliefs.”
The tax assessor in Neptune Township, where Ocean Grove is located, said he could not estimate how much more tax the association might have to pay because of the changed status of the pavilion. When the lawsuit was filed against the state last month, the assessor, Bernard Haney, estimated that the association was saving about $500,000 a year because of all of its Green Acres exemptions.
In a letter sent to the state last week arguing that the tax-exempt status of the Pavilion, should be retained, Michael Behrens, the association’s lawyer, said that the use of the open-air pavilion had not changed since it was first included in the Green Acres Program 18 years ago.
The pavilion, which is used largely for Sunday church services and youth ministry programs, has also been a place where boardwalk strollers are welcome to sit and relax. “But never was the general public granted unfettered right to use the pavilion in any way it chooses (e.g., to reserve it for an exclusive use such as a civil union ceremony),” Mr. Behrens wrote.
The case has drawn national attention, in part because Ocean Grove has long been considered a community that embraced gay residents. Steven Goldstein, executive director of Garden State Equality, a New Jersey gay rights organization, said he has gotten more e-mail messages on this issue than on any other cause his group has taken up.
“I’m hearing from gay people all over the country who thought Ocean Grove was the leading light for gay tolerance and that’s not the case anymore,” Mr. Goldstein said.
I'm feeling somewhat vindicated by this turn of events as I've gotten the biggest # of hits on this topic. Apparently people have strong feelings on this subject!