Family Research Council

Crackdown on Methodist Camp Sets Ominous Precedent

Timothy Dailey

In 1869 the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association consecrated its seaside retreat along the New Jersey shore "to the worship of Almighty God, with overwhelming and never-to-be-forgotten divine approval." That venerable retreat is now being pressured under threat of heavy financial penalty to violate their core moral beliefs about the nature of marriage. Fortunately, the present-day leadership of what is the oldest camp-meeting site in the United States is determined to remain true to their Methodist heritage and seek "divine approval" rather than allow practices contrary to their deeply-held moral teachings. If the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is approved by Congress, we will see many more cases where people of faith are forced to compromise their beliefs.

Long ago the Association opened up its magnificent half-mile of beaches and boardwalk for the public to enjoy. On the boardwalk is a simple, rustic pavilion used for religious services, including weddings, and many have enjoyed spiritual communion in that idyllic setting on the beach. 

Enter Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Pester, a lesbian couple who wanted to use the pavilion for their same-sex civil union ceremony.  When the Association politely turned down their request because of their conviction that marriage consisted of the union of a man and a woman, the lesbian couple promptly filed a complaint with the state attorney general's office, charging sexual orientation discrimination.  After an investigation, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced that it was stripping the Association of its tax exempt status for the portion of its property where the pavilion stood.

That isn't good enough, incidentally, for the homosexual activists at Garden State Equality, which is threatening to appeal DEP's decision, saying it doesn't go far enough.  Chairman Steve Goldstein gloats that "there is a bigger victory to be had by having the entire tax-exemption removed.  We're happy, but there's a lot more happiness to be had."

Apparently these activists will not be satisfied until they see the Association either accede to their demands or face being put out of business by huge tax bills.

DEP had granted the Association a tax break as part of New Jersey 's "Green Acre" historic preservation program, prompting the claim that because the program requires public access, the Association should be required to allow same-sex marriages to be performed on its property.  In fact, the application materials for the program stipulate that "restrictions on public use" are permitted.  The relevant section of the DEP application states: "For activities not allowed on your property, please submit a detailed statement describing any restrictions on the public use of the site." 

Examples of such restrictions are "e.g., camping, boating, hunting, fishing, day use only, no fires, etc."  For purposes of property tax exemption, one listed criterion for eligibility is "the organization's purpose."  It is perfectly reasonable for a religious organization such as the Association, whose stated purpose is "to provide opportunities for spiritual birth, growth, and renewal in a Christian seaside setting," to wish not to be forced to sanction activities on its property which violate its fundamental moral teachings.

Ah, but all that is of little consequence, says the pundit, because in this case the New Jersey Law against Discrimination trumps all.  The law decrees that no discrimination on the basis of "sexual orientation" is permitted on property deemed for "public use."  But while it is true that the New Jersey Law against Discrimination includes no specific religious exemption, there is precedent in interpreting the law as specifically protecting the right not to perform same-sex marriages because of religious beliefs.   

The precedent comes from New Jersey Attorney General Stuart Rabner, who in January announced that members of the clergy will not be forced to perform civil union ceremonies for same-sex couples.  In a letter to state registrar Joseph Komosinski, Rabner stated: "There is no statutory bar to a member of the clergy declining to solemnize civil unions in accordance with sincerely held religious beliefs, even though that religious figure regularly solemnizes marriages."  If a minister is not required to perform same-sex civil marriages, a church or religious organization also should not be required to have same-sex civil marriages performed on its premises.

The Association is suing New Jersey state officials, claiming that the state is violating its First Amendment protections.  "The government can't force a private Christian organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs," said the Association's lawyer.  If the Association loses its battle to retain "divine approval" by remaining true to its beliefs, it will unleash a torrent of similar cases around the nation. 

On the federal level, ENDA would make "sexual orientation" a protected class, requiring business owners to hire open homosexuals and offer wedding-related services to homosexuals, even if doing so would conflict with their religious beliefs.  The latest version of the federal ENDA contains an exemption for "religious organizations." But the attack upon the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association using the tax code demonstrates how the screws can be tightened against organizations that don't conform to the mandates of political correctness. And it shows what a thin reed religious liberty will rest upon if such a bill becomes law nationwide.

Timothy Dailey is a Senior Fellow in the Policy Division at Family Research Council.