by Dennis Proust OCEAN GROVE, N.J. â€” A Christian camp meeting community here is being forced to accommodate same-sex ceremonies. Are Catholics next?
Ocean Grove, a tiny seaside village on the Jersey Shore, is in many ways like something out of another time.
With its wood frame Victorian inns, small family-run cafes and restaurants (no alcohol served in this â€œdryâ€ town with a long history of temperance), Ocean Grove might have been lifted out of the 19th century.
But a distinctly 21st-century controversy has rudely intervened in this Methodist Church-owned village, which began as a place for Protestant tent revival meetings.
Ocean Grove has come out on the short end of a homosexual union controversy that traditional marriage advocates say portends chilling religious liberty implications.
An official of the stateâ€™s Catholic Conference voiced concern that Catholic organizations could be next.
It all started in March 2007, just three months after the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill allowing homosexuals to enter into state-sanctioned civil unions, the legal equivalent of marriage.
Two lesbian partners sought permission to hold their civil union ceremony at the Ocean Grove Boardwalk Pavilion, owned by the Methodist-run Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association.
Ocean Grove was founded in 1869 by a group of Methodist ministers seeking an oceanfront Christian camp meeting community. They formed the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which continues to own all of the village land, which it leases to residents.
The association regularly made the pavilion, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, available for weddings, regardless of religious affiliation. The pavilion also has long been used as a site for religious services. (The association keeps its section of beach closed on Sunday mornings.)
Because the Methodist Church disapproves of homosexual activity, same-sex â€œmarriageâ€ and civil unions, the two women were denied the use of the pavilion. That prompted them to file a claim of discrimination with the state of New Jersey.
On Dec. 29, the stateâ€™s Division of Civil Rights ruled that because the association regularly made the pavilion available for weddings and other public use, it was a public accommodation and therefore bound by the stateâ€™s anti-discrimination law to allow the civil union ceremony.
Lawrence Lustberg, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who represented the plaintiffs, hailed the decision as a â€œspectacular victory.â€
But those who support not only traditional marriage but the ability of a religious organization to remain true to its teachings saw it as a grave assault on religious liberty, with potentially dire consequences.
â€œGay â€˜marriageâ€™ advocates seek to get the law to endorse a new moral principle â€” orientation is just like race,â€ said Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which was the biggest single financial supporter of Californiaâ€™s Proposition 8 banning same-sex â€œmarriage.â€ â€œOnce the law endorses this principle, traditional religious communities are going to be treated like racists if we act on and promote our countercultural view [that] thereâ€™s something special about unions of husband and wife. Ocean Grove is the tip of a very large iceberg. Take it seriously.â€
Experts say Ocean Grove is just one example of religious liberty taking a backseat to promotion of the new societal ideal of nondiscrimination against homosexuals in any possible form.
For example, in 2006, Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Boston had to stop its adoption services because the state of Massachusetts, where court-ordered same-sex â€œmarriagesâ€ have been performed since 2004, would not allow it to â€œdiscriminateâ€ against homosexual couples seeking to adopt. And last year in New Mexico, the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission found a private wedding photography business in Albuquerque run by a Christian husband and wife guilty of â€œsexual orientation discriminationâ€ for declining to photograph a lesbian commitment ceremony.
What About Tolerance?
One attorney fighting the discrimination charge in Ocean Grove warned of a â€œreal and present threatâ€ to religious liberty.
â€œOn a broader level, what youâ€™re seeing is these nondiscrimination laws that are being turned against Christian people,â€ said Jim Campbell, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund who served as associate counsel representing the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association. â€œTheyâ€™re being used against religious organizations to tell them what to do and force them to use their own property in a way that violates their own religious principles, which is a very dangerous road to go down. Weâ€™re elevating these sexual relationships to a level thatâ€™s trumping one of the fundamental rights in this country â€” our right to religious liberty and religious freedom.â€
In New Jersey, Campbell believes the deck is stacked against the association because state law makes the Division of Civil Rights, â€œthe judge, the jury and the prosecutionâ€ in such cases. Now that the agency has issued its determination, the case moves to a trial-like hearing by the same agency, which will also decide on any remedies.
Lustberg, the ACLU attorney, told the Associated Press he would seek an order for the pavilion to be â€œopen to all on an equal basis.â€
Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, worries about the implications for the Catholic Church. While former New Jersey Attorney General (now chief justice of the state Supreme Court) Stuart Rabner previously issued an opinion saying that clergy would not be required to bless civil unions, the decision could impact the Church in other ways.
â€œWe do have serious concerns about Catholic organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus, being required to provide a facility for events and activities which would violate Catholic teaching,â€ said Brannigan.
Since the controversy arose, the association has stopped permitting any weddings to be held in the pavilion. This is the only way to avoid charges of discrimination, similar to the action taken by Catholic Charities in Boston regarding adoption.
â€œIt just goes to show the pretense of tolerance from the homosexual agenda; thatâ€™s exactly what it is â€” a pretense. Itâ€™s not true, and we see that here,â€ said Campbell. â€œThey will talk about it all day, saying, â€˜Weâ€™re not trying to infringe on anyoneâ€™s religious liberty.â€™ â€¦ But when the rubber meets the road, look what theyâ€™re demanding here.
â€œTheyâ€™re demanding that a Christian organization use its property in a way that violates their religious principles and forces them to recognize â€” in a sense, endorse â€” these relationships.â€