NJ Rules against Camp's Civil Union Ban

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CBNNews.com - Officials in New Jersey have ruled that a church group with a beach front pavillion 'discriminated' against a lesbian couple by refusing to rent out their property for a same-sex civil union ceremony.

The New Jersey Division of Civil Rights said Monday that the United Methodist Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association violated the state's anti-descrimination law by refusing to let the couple use the church's Boardwalk Pavilion for the ceremony.

Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster had requested to use the church's camp grounds in 2007, shortly after the state passed a same-sex civil union law. When the church denied their application, the couple filed a complaint arguing that their civil rights had been violated.

The association argued that same-sex civil unions conflict with the Methodist church's doctrinal beliefs. But when the state refused to renew the church group's tax exempt status in response to the complaint, they stopped renting out the place for weddings.

"The Ocean Grove controversy is yet another example of how pleas for "tolerance" too often morph into new and insidious forms of intolerance," said Mark Tooley, the UMCAction director for the Institute on Religion & Democracy.  

Equal Rights vs. Religious Freedom

Now, an administrative law judge must decide on what action to take. The ruling allows the lesbian couple to move forward with their complaint, but both parties must wait for the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to decide on who can rule on the matter, either the state's civil rights division or a federal court.

The couple's attorney says he will seek an order requiring the Pavilion be "open to all on an equal basis."

But Brian Raum, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund who represented the Methodist camp, said his clients would continue the fight 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."

The case comes at a time when gay activists are pushing down more and more barriers to claim a legal marriage status across the nation.

"It is truly sad that the real mission of this lesbian couple is to force the Methodist Church and Christian believers to embrace their beliefs in place of their own," one blog responder wrote about the case last year on Njvoices.com.

"About a half a mile down the boardwalk in Bradley Beach is a beautiful pavilion with a great view of the ocean, and the benches are set up as a church. If all this lesbian couple really wanted was to have their civil union in a beach front pavilion, why didn't they choose that one?," the responder added.

Sacrficing Convictions

Gay rights supporters say the discrimination ruling shows that New Jersey's two-year-old civil unions law falls short of its intent to give gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples.

Liberty Counsel founder Mathew Staver said that cases like this that interfere with religious rights will only continue to increase in number.

"When a church has to sacrifice its religious convictions in order to invite the public to use its facilities, the threat to liberty is not hype," he said.

"Whenever a right is granted to same-sex unions, then a right is taken from religious liberty and freedom of speech," he continued. "Same-sex unions pose a serious threat to freedom of conscience and free exercise of religion."

In November 2007, a U.S. district judge dismissed the Methodist camp association's counter suit that sought to end the state's complaint investigation. That decision is also on appeal.

New Jersey officials and  newspapers have roundly condemned the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association for not allowing same-sex ceremonies on the privately owned property they use primarliy for worship events. The camp ground was founded by Methodists in the 19th century as a place for spiritual revival.

Sources: NJ.com, Liberty Counsel, CBN News, The Associated Press

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