Saturday, April 26, 2008
Update "Group Loses Tax Break Over Gay Union Issue"
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…
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.”
“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.”
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.
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"