Life just got more difficult for churches in New Jersey that have theological objections to blessing gay unions. In a ruling from the state Civil Rights Division, the United Methodist affiliated Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association was found to have discriminated against a pair of lesbians when it denied their request to use an Association facility:
The finding, issued by Division on Civil Rights Director J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, said an investigation had determined there was reason to pursue anti-discrimination charges against the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association for denying Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster permission to rent its Boardwalk Pavilion for their civil union ceremony. Vespa-Papaleo also intervened as a complainant in the case.
Evidently in New Jersey it is OK for a state official to play prosecutor, judge and jury in a case.
Bernstein and Paster, who live in Ocean Grove, had applied for permission to rent the Boardwalk Pavilion for their civil union ceremony in March 2007, but the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association denied their request because it said the civil union ceremony conflicted with the religious beliefs of the United Methodist Church. The Association said it was not required to permit civil union ceremonies in its Boardwalk Pavilion based on First Amendment rights.
However, an investigation found that the refusal to permit the civil union ceremony violated the public accommodation provisions of the state’s Law Against Discrimination and did not violate First Amendment Rights. The Division investigation found that the Camp Meeting Association had been permitting the public to use the Boardwalk Pavilion for weddings and secular events and that the Association had gained a Green Acres tax exemption from the state Department of Environmental Protection nearly 20 years ago after a finding that the Pavilion will be open to the public “on an equal basis.” (Following filing of the civil rights complaint, the DEP rejected a renewal of the Green Acres tax exemption for the Boardwalk Pavilion in September 2007.)
The Finding of Probable Cause states in part, “When it invites the public at large to use it, the Association is subject to the Law Against Discrimination, and enforcement of that law in this context does not affect the Association’s constitutionally protected right to free exercise of religion.”
That last claim is extraordinary–public accommodations laws that have never been applicable to religious facilities now trump the First Amendment in New Jersey. Here’s where the problem comes in: A lot of churches will permit non-church members to use its facility for a wedding, and many of those same churches will open their doors to secular events (anything from concerts to AA meetings). While the Camp Meeting Association pavilion isn’t a church building, it certainly is a “religious facility” at least as much as a church family life center or amphitheater would be. What New Jersey is saying, in essence, is that if churches allow their facilities to be used by the public, they are risking being sued by gays and having the state CRD play enforcer to coerce them into having their buildings used for purposes to which they are unalterably opposed. The public will be hurt by that, as churches make perfect places to hold many events, and churches will be hurt, by being unable to extend hospitality to others, but I suppose that doesn’t make any difference to the enforcers of the new sexual morality orthodoxy.
There are lots of people out there trying to make the case that legalizing gay marriage will have no effect on anyone else. This case suggests otherwise.
(Via Alliance Alert.)