12/30/2008

Getting Campy

Ocean Grove's beachImage via WikipediaIt seems that a Lesbian couple in New Jersey is taking on the Methodist church over their desire to have their civil union ceremony at a beachfront camp site owned by the church.

The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights said its investigation found that the refusal of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to rent the oceanfront spot to the couple for their same-sex union in March 2007 violated the public accommodation provisions of the state's Law Against Discrimination.

While the ruling is decisively in favor of the couple, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, it does not end the case. An administrative law judge still must decide on a remedy for the parties.

"What this case has always been about from my clients' perspective has been equality," said Larry Lustberg, the lawyer for the couple. He said they will seek an order that requires the pavilion to be "open to all on an equal basis."

Brian Raum, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based group that represents the Methodist organization, Camp Meeting Association, said his clients would keep pushing back against being forced to allow civil unions on the property.

"Our position is the same," he said. "A Christian organization has a constitutional right to use their facilities in a way that is consistent with their beliefs."

Meanwhile, the parties in the dispute are awaiting a ruling from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on whether the issue should be decided in the division on civil rights or in federal courts. A lower federal court has ruled that the state could consider the case.

Note: Of course the nutty and Orwellian named ADF has to get its hand in the pot. Reminder, I hate Phoenix but specifically I hate Scottsdale and its other Stepford wife pseudo cities which is Arizona's answer to Orange County in California.

Back on topic: I have mixed feelings on this one. While I can certainly see the point of applying the public accommodation laws to a resort property I also have mixed emotions about forcing a religious group to do something clearly against their own beliefs.

Looking at the Ocean Grove Meeting Association website however, it becomes clear that while the church maintains it is a place for spiritual renewal rooted in the Methodist tradition in a seaside setting, the group also sells "Beach Badges" which are passes to use the beach recreation area.

More importantly they "rent" their facilities to groups unaffiliated with their own church. Although the form they require with the deposit states that they only allow use of the facilities that are "consistent with the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline." Of course, you have to buy the Book of Discipline from their online store to know what uses they would find acceptable. However, unless they have added a statement against civil unions in the years since I left that church, a civil union regardless of sex wasn't mentioned to my knowledge. I can't imagine they would find a need to mention a civil union in a religious handbook unless they clearly had stepped even further into the arms of extremists but its possible, I guess.

So, here we have a "church" facility that seems to be set up not as a real church but rather a beachfront resort. They rent facilities in exchange for money, they sell passes to their beach, they rent rooms and campsites and none of those things require that you be a member in good standing of the United Methodist Church. You're free to come and use the facility as long as you're willing to part with the cash - unless you're LGBT or any other minority that the UMC decides it doesn't like. As long as you are heterosexual you can be a member of any Judeo-Christian faith, presumably and use the facilities for your wedding or other ceremony or celebration (as long as you don't bring pets or booze). But, gays need not apply.

So, where does that leave us? If this were a real church, e.g., a building dedicated solely to the use of a particular faith and overseen by an actual ordained minister, then I would have a great problem with this couple trying to sue for access. However, in light of the fact that this is not a real church but rather a public "chapel" and "resort" with no resident minister (in fact they can "suggest" local ministers and pianists to help with ceremonies) then I feel that this may truly be a public accommodation issue on a par with a hotel running a "wedding chapel" service. The fact that a religious group simply bankrolls the operation doesn't mitigate the fact that this is primarily a resort property and the church designation probably keeps the tax man at bay. After all, I'd bet Donald Trump would love to declare one of his hotels/casinos a "church property" and never pay another corporate tax.

In the end though, that will get lost in the reporting. What will get reported, even by LGBT publications is that a Lesbian couple are suing a church over the use of their property for a "gay wedding" and it will simply inflame public opinion on all sides. Looking at the photos of the place though, I wonder why you'd want to use it. It's a bit kitschy and surely there are nicer stretches of the Jersey Shore. Besides, would you want to kick off your life together in a place with such negative vibes?

Not me... as you will see tomorrow, my relationship started on a beach. No minister, no church, no facility rental agreement required.

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