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Civil union law hits religious retreat center

OCEAN GROVE, N.J. (BP)–Those who believe “gay marriage” would have no impact on religious freedoms may want to take a look at New Jersey, where the state is investigating a United Methodist retreat center — similar to those of LifeWay — that prohibited a lesbian couple from using one of its facilities for a civil union ceremony.

The question is whether the nonprofit Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association — an ocean-front retreat-type ministry owned and operated by members of the United Methodist Church — violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. Once rebuffed, the two women, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, filed a complaint with the state’s civil rights office.

Even though the investigation is not yet complete, the Ocean Grove ministry filed a federal lawsuit Aug. 11, arguing that the investigation itself is unconstitutional. The suit, filed on behalf of the ministry by the Alliance Defense Fund, seeks an order declaring the law unconstitutional as applied.

Ocean Grove is similar to retreat centers associated with other denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Glorieta (N.M.) and Ridgecrest (N.C.) conference centers.

“[T]he Division on Civil Rights … has violated the Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by subjecting this patently religious entity to an illegal investigation and threat of prosecution under the law,” the lawsuit reads.

The investigation, the lawsuit further says, “is causing a substantial burden on, and chilling of” the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association’s “rights to unfettered religious expression, association and free exercise of religion.”

The ministry owns one square mile of property and several facilities, although the one at the center of the controversy is the Boardwalk Pavilion, a building located on scenic property overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. A worship service is held there every Sunday morning during the summer. Allowing the lesbian women to use the facility for a ceremony, the lawsuit says, would have violated the ministry’s “religious beliefs as reflected in the United Methodist Book of Discipline and the Holy Bible.”

Lee Moore, a spokesman for New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram, said the lawsuit was “premature” since findings from the investigation have yet to be released, The New York Times reported.

But Brian Raum, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, said the state should have “refused to entertain a complaint against a religious organization” and told the couple who filed it that “the law against discrimination doesn’t apply under these circumstances.”

“Whenever the state investigates, they inherently affect your right to operate as you normally would,” Raum told Baptist Press. “They put you under compulsion to provide records. There’s a stigma attached to an investigation. Anytime you investigate, people assume you’ve done something wrong.”

If the ministry was to provide its facility to a lesbian couple it would be a patent endorsement of the civil unions law, Baum said.

Homosexual activists long have argued that if “gay marriage” is legalized nationwide, ministers would not be forced to conduct the ceremonies. Baum, though, says there are many other ways such a law could impact religious freedoms. New Jersey, he says, is one example.

“This is one of the dangers that many people warned against — that as these [laws] that are set up for same-sex relationships grow, those who oppose them are going to be subject to ridicule and prosecutions,” he said.

The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association was founded in 1869 and has owned the property since the 1870s. A statement on its website says its purpose is “to provide opportunities for spiritual birth, growth, and renewal in a Christian seaside setting.” It often hosts church retreats. Its board has more than 40 members, and requirements state that all of them must be United Methodists, with at least 10 of them being clergy and at least 10 non-clergy.

“The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association literally owns all the land in that community,” Raum said.

The case is Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association of the United Methodist Church v. J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo.
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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