Lesbian Couple Wants Access to Religious Property for Civil Union

July 7, 2008 - 8:23 PM

(CNSNews.com) - A lesbian couple in New Jersey has filed a complaint against a Methodist-owned campground, claiming illegal discrimination because their request for a civil union ceremony on the property was denied.

Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster in March applied for use of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association's Boardwalk Pavilion for their civil union ceremony, planned for September. The Methodist organization rejected their application and later told Bernstein in an email that it did not allow civil unions to be held on the pavilion.

Bernstein and Paster filed a complaint against the OGCMA in June, alleging illegal discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation.

In their complaint, the couple requested "whatever relief is provided by law" including "compensatory damages for economic loss, humiliation, [and] mental pain." They also demanded that the pavilion be made available for their ceremony.

At a meeting of members, chief administrative officer Rev. Scott Hoffman argued that the campground had every right to prohibit civil unions. He called the pavilion a "church building" that "has always been used for worship services and gospel concerts."

The OGCMA is a Methodist organization, with a board of trustees comprising 10 pastors and 10 lay people. As such, the organization operates according to Methodist teachings, Hoffman said.

"Those who make decisions are bound to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which states that homosexual unions cannot be performed in church buildings, whether by clergy or lay people," he said.

Garden State Equality, a political action organization that represents "the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community," asked supporters to write to the OGCMA, saying the civil unions ban was an affront to the Ocean Grove community.

"It's hard to believe this is happening in our progressive state of New Jersey," GSE says on its website.

The organization contended that the ban was illegal, saying that it "violates the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination because the property is, in fact, public ... by virtue of having been used by the public for many years."

But the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group that is representing the OGCMA in the dispute, said that forcing the pavilion to host civil unions would be unconstitutional.

Brian Raum, ADF senior legal counsel, said enforcing the complaint would intrude on the rights of the Methodists as a religious organization.

"The government shouldn't force churches to violate their own religious principles," he said. "Private, religious property owners have the right to decide what can and cannot take place on their property."

According to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, entities that "offer goods, services, and facilities to the general public" are prohibited from "directly or indirectly denying or withholding any accommodation, service, benefit, or privilege to an individual" on the basis of sexual orientation.

But according to the ADF, New Jersey is still subject to the First Amendment, and state statutes that limit liberties guaranteed by the Constitution must be overturned.

New Jersey is considered to be one of the most liberal states in America. Last October, the state Supreme Court gave the New Jersey legislature 180 days to provide for civil unions under the law, and the legislature has complied.

Same-sex "marriage" is still illegal in New Jersey, although it is favored by 56 percent of residents, according to a Zogby poll.

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