By Charles Layton
The state’s Division on Civil Rights issued its final conclusion Tuesday in the Ocean Grove boardwalk pavilion case.
As had been expected, the agency’s director, Craig Sashihara, accepted without modification a January ruling by a state administrative law judge that the Camp Meeting Association discriminated unlawfully in denying an Ocean Grove couple permission for a same-sex civil ceremony at the pavilion.
The case of Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster attracted national attention over the conflict it presented between gay civil rights and religious beliefs espoused by the Camp Meeting. It can also be viewed as a socially transforming event in the recent history of Ocean Grove.
The issue awakened a sense of unity and activism on the part of what had been a sizable but until then rather quiescent local gay community. It sparked heated debate among members of the Home Owners Association. It brought into being Ocean Grove United, a local civil rights group. It is the reason one sees blue and yellow equality banners on numerous houses around town.
However, it never became a landmark Constitutional case, although at one point the Camp Meeting attempted, unsuccessfully, to take the matter into federal court. Instead, the issue remained within the domain of the state Division on Civil Rights after Bernstein and Paster filed a complaint with that agency in 2007.
The Camp Meeting, which owns the boardwalk and all its accoutrements, had a history of renting out the open-air, wood-framed pavilion for community events, including weddings. But when Bernstein and Paster applied for permission to hold their civil ceremony there in 2007, the Camp Meeting refused on religious grounds.
The case went from the Civil Rights Division to an administrative law judge, who concluded that the Camp Meeting had violated the state’s law against discrimination. The Civil Rights Division could then have adopted, modified or rejected that decision, but on Tuesday it upheld it.
Sashihara, in his opinion, wrote that the boardwalk pavilion was a public accommodation because the public had been invited to use it and the pavilion received direct tax support from the government — a tax exemption under the state’s Green Acres program. A condition of the tax exemption was that the property be open for public use by all “on an equal basis.” Sashihara’s reasoning echoed the earlier findings of the administrative law judge.
“We are thrilled,” Bernstein said. “They have lost on every level.”
The decision includes no award of damages to the plaintiffs, nor did Bernstein and Paster request any. In fact, as applied to them personally, the case is moot. Six months after filing their complaint, they conducted their civil ceremony on the fishing pier.
Tuesday’s decision does indeed bring this long, highly-emotional case to a close so far as the Civil Rights Division is concerned. However, under the law, the Camp Meeting could still choose to take an appeal to the state Superior Court, Appellate Division. Court rules require that such an appeal must be filed within 45 days from the date of the decision.
The Camp Meeting had no immediate comment.
UPDATE: The Camp Meeting issued a statement on Friday, October 26, saying its board of trustees would schedule a meeting to decide whether to appeal. For that, go here.