State launched probe after lesbian couple sued because church group refused to let them use pavilion for civil union
TRENTON, N.J. A church group sued New Jersey on Monday, Aug. 13, over the state’s investigation of a complaint that the group refused to allow a lesbian couple to hold a civil union ceremony at a beachfront pavilion it owns.
The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist group, alleges that by finding enough reason to investigate the complaint, the state’s Division on Civil Rights is threatening to prosecute the group in order to force it to allow such ceremonies to take place.
The investigation is the first of its kind for New Jersey, which began allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions in February.
Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster of Ocean Grove filed the complaint after the association rejected their application to use the pavilion and returned their $75 deposit. The group said it rejected the application because the church does not recognize same-sex unions.
“In an apparent distortion of the First Amendment, they are claiming that they have the right to discriminate against people who do not share their religious tenets,” Bernstein said.
The organization said if the group were to allow civil union ceremonies for same-sex couples to take place, it would constitute approval of such unions. The lawsuit also says the state’s investigation has forced the association to limit use of the pavilion for weddings out of fear of prosecution.
“The government can’t force a private Christian organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs,” said Brian Raum, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the association.
In a statement, Lee Moore, a spokesman for the state’s attorney general, described the lawsuit as “premature,” saying the division hasn’t come to any conclusion about the case.
“To date, the Division on Civil Rights has asserted nothing beyond its right to initiate an investigation to determine whether there has been a violation of the law against discrimination,” Moore said.
Moore said it was the first investigation to deal with the issue of where a civil union ceremony could be performed since the civil unions legislation became law. He said the state had previously received two complaints having to do with receiving job benefits.
The association said it uses the pavilion for a variety of programs such as a Sunday morning worship service and a Bible school class, and has rented the pavilion for wedding ceremonies.
Bernstein said that in the past, the pavilion has been used for civil wedding ceremonies as well as for people of all faiths to get married. She said it’s also used for concerts and impromptu gatherings.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 17, 2007