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Ocean Grove Methodists illegally discriminated against women’s civil union, judge rules

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

Ocean Grove’s Camp Meeting Association violated state anti-discrimination laws when it refused two women the use of its boardwalk pavillion for a civil union on the grounds of Methodist doctrine, a state administrative law judge has ruled.

Ocean Grove boardwalk pavillion (Look through the pavillion and you’ll see the fishing pier)

As those familiar with the Grove’s association know, it often allows people to rent the pavilion overlooking the ocean for various events. Its denial of a permit for Grove residents Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster in 2007 was its first ever, according to the New Jersey ACLU.

“The Camp Meeting Association could have used the pavilion exclusively for its own purposes,” said Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, P.C., who represents the couple as a cooperating attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “The judge found, however, that the association opened the pavilion up to the public and thus was obligated to follow anti-discrimination laws.”

“We are pleased with the judge’s findings,” said Harriet Bernstein. “When we first started planning our civil union, we had no idea that it would come to this.  We weren’t asking the association to change their beliefs. We just wanted them to give us the same opportunity to use a beautiful space that we had seen open for public use.”

Paster and Bernstein celebrated their civil union at the Grove’s fishing pier, just south of the pavilion, on June 30, 2007. By then, the community rallied around the couple, showing support by raising flags around town that symbolized LGBT equality.

“Fortunately, out of this painful incident, Ocean Grove residents have a renewed sense of community and have come together to support equality,” said Luisa Paster.

In his written decision, Judge Solomon A. Metzger of the Office of Administrative Law ruled that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association breached its agreement to make the pavilion available to the public on an equal basis.

The association was also required to make the pavilion public in exchange for a state tax exemption it received that requires equal access on a non-discriminatory basis, the judge said.

Metzger also noted that while the association is free to practice its mission without government oversight, it had never attached any religious ministry to the wedding venue until it received Paster and Bernstein’s application.

“(The association) was not, however, free to promise equal access to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition and then except (Bernstein and Paster),” Judge Metzger stated.

The administrative law judge’s decision is sent to the Director of the Division on Civil Rights, who has 45 days to adopt, modify or reject it as part of the Director’s final decision. Otherwise, it becomes final.

The association could then appeal to the Appellate Division of state Superior Court.

Bernstein, 70, a grandmother and retired school administrator and Paster, 64, a retired academic librarian, met at a retreat in the Poconos in 2000.

The couple selected the pavillion shortly after New Jersey adopted the civil union law.

The pavilion was used for community and charitable events and the owners of the property, Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, received a tax exemption from the state Green Acres program, which provides exemptions to non-profit organizations who use their property for recreational or conservation purposes. An important condition of the exemption is that the property be “open for public use on an equal basis.”

In December 2008, the state Division on Civil Rights found probable cause that the association violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. The case then went to the administrative law judge.

“This decision affirms New Jersey’s strong protections against discrimination,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “When you open your doors to the public, you can’t treat same-sex couples differently.”






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