Methodist Group Loses on Lesbian Civil Union

BY ARTHUR S. LEONARD | An administrative law judge has ruled that a group affiliated with the United Methodist Church violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) by refusing to rent the Boardwalk Pavilion on its property in Ocean Grove for a civil union ceremony by a lesbian couple.

Judge Solomon A. Metzger’s January 12 ruling involved a claim the couple made against the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which owns and operates a square mile of real estate on the New Jersey shore in Neptune Township near Asbury Park.

In March 2007, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster applied to use the Boardwalk Pavilion, advertised as available for wedding rentals for $250, for their civil union ceremony. The only basis on which an application for that purpose had ever been denied was scheduling conflicts with religious programming or other community or charitable events.

Ocean Grove rejected the couple’s application, according to Metzger’s opinion, saying that “same-sex civil unions conflicted with scriptural teaching regarding homosexuality and that [it] could not condone such a ceremony at the Pavilion.”

Metzger first weighed whether the Boardwalk Pavilion was a “place of public accommodation” under the nondiscrimination law, a task simplified by Ocean Grove’s decision in 1989 to apply for a “Green Acres” real-estate tax exemption. That benefit is granted for private property open to the public for recreational use without restriction. The Ocean Grove application “describes the area as public in nature,” the judge wrote.

Neptune Township had opposed the application, arguing Ocean Grove’s religious restrictions made it doubtful public access would in fact be available on an equal basis without discrimination. Ocean Grove countered it would abide by an open policy “without reservation.”

Metzger pointed out that the Pavilion’s website ad made no reference to any religious requirements. Indeed, many of the wedding ceremonies held there did not comply with Methodist doctrine. The judge ruled that when Bernstein and Paster applied to rent the facility, it was clearly a place of public accommodation.

The other issue Metzger had to resolve was whether as a religiously affiliated organization, Ocean Grove was entitled to an exemption from the nondiscrimination requirement of state law. The organization’s rental of the Pavilion for weddings, he wrote, was “an activity largely detached from associational expression or speech. Respondent did not inquire into religious beliefs or practice because it did not sponsor, or otherwise control, these weddings… The arm’s length nature of the transactions gave respondent a comfortable distance from notions incompatible with its own beliefs. That same distance pertained to civil unions.”

Metzger concluded, “I do not believe that the facts pose a true question of religious freedom, but were they to, the matter would not be governed by the high bar of ‘strict scrutiny,’ but by a much lower standard that tolerates some intrusion into religious freedom to balance other important societal goals.”

Ocean Grove had renewed its Green Acres exemption every three years until this controversy came up, after which renewal was denied. Pointing out that it could have obtained a tax exemption based on its religious affiliation –– one not dependent on open access –– the Association has since gotten out of the wedding rental business.

Noting that decision, Metzger wrote, “Respondent can rearrange Pavilion operations, as it has done, to avoid this clash with the LAD. It was not, however, free to promise equal access, to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition, and then except these petitioners.”

Bernstein and Paster did not seek damages, only a declaration that their right of access to public accommodations had been violated, so Metzger concluded that a “finding of wrongdoing should be an adequate redress.” As an administrative law judge, his decision is actually a recommendation to the State Division on Civil Rights’ director, who makes the final ruling after considering any “exceptions” either party might file.

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