Judge: Christian Group Can't Bar Same-Sex Ceremony on NJ Property

A New Jersey judge has recently ruled that a Christian organization must perform same-sex ceremonies on its property despite its views regarding the practice.

Judge Solomon A. Metzger of the Office of Administrative Law ruled last Thursday that Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association violated state anti-discrimination laws when it did not allow a lesbian couple to use its boardwalk pavilion in 2007.

Jim Campbell, Alliance Defense Fund litigation staff counsel who represented the OGCMA, told CP that he “disagrees with the judge's recommended decision.”

“The government cannot prohibit a private Christian organization from declining to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs,” said Campbell.

“If the director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights accepts this recommended decision, it would be an example where the constitutional rights of religious liberty have been cast aside in favor of the homosexual legal agenda.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, who represented the lesbian couple, celebrated the result of the case.

“The Camp Meeting Association could have used the pavilion exclusively for its own purposes,” said Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, a cooperating attorney from the ACLU of NJ who was involved in the case, in a statement.

“The judge found, however, that the association opened the pavilion up to the public and thus was obligated to follow anti-discrimination laws.”

 “We think the judge made the right call in this case,” said ACLU of NJ attorney Jeanne LoCicero, who represented the lesbian couple in court.

LoCicero explained that the OGCMA had “a history of not discriminating on any other religious issue” when allowing different groups to use their pavilion space. LoCicero did not believe the case revolved around “religious liberty issues” since the OGCMA had agreed to have the pavilion space to be open for “public use” and to therefore be subject to state antidiscrimination laws.

In 2007, Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association denied a permit for Ocean Grove residents Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, who wanted to hold their civil union ceremony on the OGCMA’s seaside boardwalk pavilion.

Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association identifies itself as Methodist in its religious affiliation and cited the United Methodist Church’s official opposition to homosexual unions as a reason for the denial of the permit.

According to Judge Metzger’s opinion, the OGCMA had made their property public space in return for a tax exempt status. The Judge also wrote that the OGCMA had long considered the boardwalk space secular in nature, therefore lacking in a religious purpose that would justify excluding events on religious grounds.

Bruce Hausknecht, judicial analyst for CitizenLink, told CP that he was concerned about the conclusions reached by the judge in the case regarding religious freedom.

“The notion that receiving a tax break acts as a waiver of a religious community’s First Amendment liberties is dangerous thinking,” said Hausknecht.

“As last week’s terrific Supreme Court decision in the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church case re-emphasized, the First Amendment does not take a back seat to anti-discrimination statutes.”

Judge Metzger’s decision will be sent to the director of the Division on Civil Rights for New Jersey who has 45 days to adopt, modify or reject the decision as part of a final decision.

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