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Posts Tagged ‘Pavilion controversy’

By Charles Layton

The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association said Friday it has not yet decided whether to appeal this week’s decision that it unlawfully discriminated against a lesbian couple in 2007.

The Camp Meeting issued a brief statement, saying only that it “has received the decision of the director of the Division on Civil Rights. The board will be scheduling a meeting to review the decision and consider its options.”

The Division on Civil Rights, a state agency, issued a ruling on Tuesday in favor of Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, who had complained of discrimination after the Camp Meeting refused to allow them to hold their civil union ceremony at the boardwalk pavilion, which the Camp Meeting owns.

The Camp Meeting has 45 days from the date of that decision either to appeal it to the Appellate Division of Superior Court or to let the decision stand unchallenged.

The Division decided in favor of Bernstein and Paster on grounds that the pavilion was a public accommodation under the law. However, it assessed no penalties against the Camp Meeting, nor had the couple asked for any.

For background, read our previous story by clicking here.

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Bishop Janes Tabernacle, Ocean Grove, NJ. 9/3/2007. Photo by Paul Goldfinger

By Mary Walton and Charles Layton

A New Jersey judge has ruled that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association violated the state’s discrimination laws by denying an Ocean Grove couple the use of the boardwalk pavilion for a civil union.

The Camp Meeting had allowed many wedding ceremonies at the pavilion, but when Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster asked to use that space for a same-sex civil ceremony in 2007, their request was denied on grounds, they were told, that civil unions conflicted with scriptural teaching regarding homosexuality.

The dispute made national news, with the ACLU backing the two women and the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization, taking the side of the Camp Meeting.

The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights ruled in favor of Bernstein and Paster in 2008. The Division then sent the matter to the state Office of Administrative Law for review, as is normal in contested cases such as this.

And on Thursday, Administrative Law Judge Solomon Metzger issued his decision that the Camp Meeting had violated the state’s law against discrimination.

“We’re very happy with the decision,” Bernstein said on Friday. “It’s what we wanted. We would hope they [the Camp Meeting] would change their policy, but I think that’s not going to happen.”

Camp Meeting President Dale C. Whilden declined to comment, referring all inquiries to Camp Meeting attorneys.

Jim Campbell, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, told Fox News that, according to the judge’s ruling, the Camp Meeting “engaged in wrongdoing under the law simply for refusing to use the property in a way that would violate their religious beliefs.” Campbell said the ruling could have troublesome implications for other religious groups. “That’s the danger of this ruling,” he said. “It could be applied to other religious entities and it could be applied to other places of worship.”

Metzger’s opinion was based in large measure on the Green Acres property tax exemption first awarded to the Camp Meeting in 1989 for a stretch of the boardwalk including the pavilion. The exemption requires that the property be “open for public use on an equal basis.”

He also noted that the Camp Meeting had advertised the pavilion on a web page as a venue for “An Ocean Grove Wedding,” without mention of preconditions.

The Camp Meeting is free to set conditions for pavilion marriages, the judge said, as it has in deciding to no longer allow couples to wed there. “It was not, however, free to promise equal access, to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition and then except these petitioners.”

The judge said the Camp Meeting did not appear to have acted out of any ill motive. He said that although he considered assessing a penalty, he concluded that “the finding of wrongdoing should be an adequate redress.”

(To read the entire decision, go here.)

Metzger’s decision will now be 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 a final decision. Once a final decision is issued, either party may appeal to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court.

The Camp Meeting has not indicated whether it might appeal.

(Many Ocean Grovers may have been puzzled by an account of Thursday’s ruling that appeared on page A5 of Friday’s Asbury Park Press. That story had a great many basic facts wrong, including the names of the plaintiffs. The story confused Bernstein and Paster with another Ocean Grove lesbian couple, Emily Sonnessa and Jan Moore, who were also denied permission to use the pavilion. Sonnessa and Moore were not part of the civil rights case. On Friday, the newspaper removed the story from its website and, as of late Friday evening, had not replaced it with a corrected version.)

Six months after they were denied use of the pavilion, Bernstein and Paster held their ceremony on the Ocean Grove fishing pier, which was well attended by Ocean Grovers and by many others from outside the town. By then, the couple had achieved a kind of celebrity status, especially in the gay community.

Asked how it had felt to live in a public spotlight for the past four years, Bernstein said, “Initially it was anxiety producing … but it was very encouraging to see the community rally around us. That was a very good feeling.”

Today, Bernstein and Paster are co-chairs of Ocean Grove United, a rights organization that was formed as a response to the pavilion controversy.

Harriet Bernstein (L) and Luisa Paster. Photo by Paul Goldfinger

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