Scott Hoffman and his wife have had the privilege of watching God transform hundreds of lives through the ministry of the Ocean Grove campground. After the Civil War, a group of Methodists founded the campground on the shores of New Jersey as a place for the “perpetual worship of Jesus Christ.”
Although the campground’s wood pavilion located on the beach held weekly worship services, daily Bible studies, and regular Gospel concerts, the government determined that it isn’t a place of worship, but public property.
It started after New Jersey instituted civil unions for homosexual couples, when a lesbian couple requested to use the Ocean Grove pavilion for their civil union ceremony. Scott explained that the campground leadership followed the doctrines of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, and hosting the ceremony would violate their moral convictions of marriage as between one man and one woman.
Within days, the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights notified the campground that they would be investigated for sexual discrimination, and “prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Despite the law clearly stating that no minister or church would be forced to perform civil unions, the Division of Civil Rights determined that the campground was guilty of discrimination. They determined that the open air pavilion did not count as a church, but as a public place.
Alliance Defending Freedom helped Scott and the campground take the New Jersey Division for Civil Rights to court for violating their right to act according to their freedom of religion. Sadly, the judge ruled that they had no right to abide by their faith when determining how their buildings would be used.
Find out more about freedom of speech and religion as it impacts the church.
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Bernstein v. Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association
What's at stake
- Protecting religious groups’ right to live out their faith.
- Ensuring that ministry groups’ religious freedom is respected.
The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association of the United Methodist Church exists to provide opportunities for spiritual birth, growth, and renewal through worship, education, and cultural and recreational programs. For over 144 years, the group has owned a one-mile strip of beach-front property in New Jersey. This idyllic seaside setting includes a boardwalk pavilion. As a means of ministering to members of the community, the group hosted wedding ceremonies in many of its facilities, including the pavilion. When two women asked Ocean Grove to host their civil commitment ceremony in its pavilion, the group declined because of its religious belief that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. The two women then filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights.
After conducting an investigation, state officials put the group on trial for sexual-orientation discrimination. Alliance Defending Freedom and its allies came to Ocean Grove’s defense. They made clear that any attempt to force a religious group to host or otherwise support same-sex unions would violate the First Amendment, which protects those groups’ right to exercise their faith by declining to promote viewpoints that violate Christian teaching.
An administrative law judge rejected these arguments and ruled that Ocean Grove had violated state law by declining to host the same-sex ceremony. Alliance Defending Freedom appealed that decision to the Director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. He upheld the original ruling by concluding that the group could maintain “a comfortable distance from notions incompatible with its own beliefs.” Of course, the First Amendment was designed to take such decisions out of the government’s hands.
Following Ocean Grove’s decision not to appeal the director’s decision, it no longer hosts any wedding ceremonies in the pavilion. Alliance Defending Freedom continues to work with Ocean Grove and other religious groups to ensure they are not forced to use their property in ways that violate their faith.
Our role in this case
Alliance Defending Freedom and its allies defended the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association when it came under activist attack for refusing to violate its faith by hosting same-sex civil commitment ceremonies.
A New Jersey administrative law judge recommended Thursday that the state’s Division on Civil Rights find the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in violation of a state nondiscrimination law. The judge concluded that the ministry violated the law when it declined to allow two women to hold a “civil union” ceremony at its beachside pavilion, one of the ministry’s privately owned places of worship.
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