A New Jersey department said a Methodist group discriminated against a lesbian couple by denying them permission to hold their civil union on its beachfront property.
New Jersey's Division on Civil Rights announced Dec. 29 that it found probable cause that Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association's refusal to allow the ceremony violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
The association, a Christian retreat ministry on the Jersey shore, denied Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster permission to rent its Boardwalk Pavilion for their civil-union ceremony because it conflicted with beliefs of the United Methodist Church.
State officials, however, said the Camp Meeting Association had been permitting the public to use the Boardwalk Pavilion for weddings and secular events and obtained tax exemption from the state Department of Environmental Protection nearly 20 years ago by pledging the pavilion would be open to the public "on an equal basis."
"When it invites the public at large to use it, the Association is subject to the Law Against Discrimination, and enforcement of that law in this context does not affect the Association's constitutionally protected right to free exercise of religion," the ruling said.
The case is at the center of a controversy pitting gay rights against religious freedom.
"Religious organizations have a right to use their property in a way that's consistent with their religious beliefs," said Brian Raum, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in a lawsuit.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is representing the couple, welcomed the ruling.
"Just two weeks after the Civil Union Review Commission found that civil unions are separate and unequal, we have a flesh-and-blood case illustrating how couples are treated differently," said Ed Barocas, legal director for ACLU-New Jersey. "This decision brings us one step closer to stopping a parallel system of unequal rights."
The ruling by the Division on Civil Rights does not resolve the dispute, but only says the state believes the anti-discrimination law was violated. The issue must be settled by an administrative law judge.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, meanwhile, is in the process of deciding whether the division has proper jurisdiction for the dispute or if it should have been handled in the courts.
Founded in 1869, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is part of a long tradition that grew out of frontier revivalism in which families would have to travel a long distance to attend evangelistic meetings, which were held outdoors and would last for several days. It is a non-profit organization governed by a board of trustees, who must be members of the United Methodist Church.