For nearly a century and a half, Ocean Grove Campground on the New Jersey coast has been a place of spiritual retreat for Methodists and many others. But the peace may be over. A lesbian couple, citing New Jersey’s law against discrimination based on sexual orientation, is asking the state to compel Ocean Grove to host their same-sex ceremony at a church-owned boardwalk pavilion.
Ocean Grove’s trustees, citing the United Methodist Church’s official disapproval of same-sex unions, had declined the lesbian couple’s request. The boardwalk pavilion, though open to the public, is primarily for worship events, they have said. The lesbian couple, with some supportive comments from New Jersey officials, point to the state’s new prohibition against discrimination in public accommodations.
The controversy pits religious liberty against an expanding universe of expected protections for sexual orientation.
Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association describes its purpose as promoting “spiritual birth, growth and renewal through worship, education, cultural and recreation programs for persons of all ages in a Christian seaside setting,” rooted in a “Methodist heritage.” Every summer, the campground puts on a preaching series, Christian concerts, organ recitals and spiritual lectures. All of the association’s trustees are United Methodist ministers or lay people.
But many Ocean Grove residents, ensconced in beautiful inns and upscale beach gift shops, are unaware of their resort community’s church ties.
Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster have filed a complaint with New Jersey Division on Civil Rights because Ocean Grove would not rent the pavilion for their civil union ceremony, scheduled for September. The two women, who live in Ocean Grove, complained that heterosexual couples regularly rent the pavilion for their weddings.
A LESBIAN NUPTIAL WAS FAR from the minds of Ocean Grove’s founders, one of whom described its primitive founding in 1869: “It was no speculation; no scheme for money raising; no device of any kind, but simply and singly social, recreative, and religious, mainly — excepting the few neighbors who might to desire to worship with us — for ourselves alone. The great world we did not seek, but rather shunned, following the Savior’s invitation, ‘Come apart into a desert [or quiet] place and rest awhile.'”
Ocean Grove has grown mightily since its origins as a tent community for a few dozen Methodist clergy and their families. The original six acres sprawled into 250 acres, filled with broad avenues and charming Victorian cottages. The original trustees banned liquor sales, Sunday swimming, and vehicles on the Sabbath. Famously, President Ulysses Grant tethered his carriage and walked into Ocean Grove to visit his sister and to speak to an auditorium full of 5,000 fellow Methodists.
None of those 5,000 Methodists who cheered President Grant and relished their role in what was then America’s largest denomination could have foreseen potential litigation over a lesbian ceremony. If New Jersey officials find that Bernstein and Paster have a legitimate complaint, the first to be filed under the state’s new civil unions law, a judge will be appointed to the case.
“They have weddings there all the time,” Bernstein explained to the Associated Press. “We wanted to have our ceremony on the boardwalk, on the beach, because it’s a beautiful setting, just like any married couple would want to do.” She insisted that she and her partner were reluctant to file the formal complaint. “We felt we had to do something — we were it,” she declared.
In fact, two other Ocean Grove lesbian couples have joined in publicly denouncing Ocean Grove’s Methodist trustees for denying them access for same-sex ceremonies. Thanks partly to Ocean Grove’s picturesque architecture, making it one of the nation’s largest preserved collections of Victorian residences, Ocean Grove apparently has a significant homosexual community. Many of them were unaware of Ocean Grove’s Methodist history and had not fully realized that the land on which their cottages sit is still owned by a church campground.
”Evidently our interpretation of Christianity differs from the Camp Meeting Association’s interpretation,” one Ocean Grove lesbian told the New York Times.
THE CASE MAY DEPEND on whether the boardwalk pavilion can be defined as a church. “Certainly there is nothing I’ve seen that indicates it’s not a public accommodation, or that they would have available to them the religious exemption,” New Jersey Public Advocate Ronald Chen told the Asbury Park Press. He asserted that the structure carries no religious marks and is part of a “public thoroughfare.”
In response, Ocean Grove pointed out that nearly all of the 188 official events at the pavilion last year were worship services or hymn sings. According to the campground’s original charter, the founding Methodists “covenant[ed] together, to use certain land, which has been providentially committed to our trust for these high and holy purposes” to “keep these lands a perpetual oblation upon Christ’s altar,” and “enjoining the same duty upon those who may succeed us,” for which they pledged their “Christian honor.’
A spokesman for the Ocean Grove trustees insists that the campground in anxious to reach an accommodation with New Jersey officials that satisfies church law and upholds Methodist beliefs. That balance will become increasingly difficult.
Look for more such struggles ahead, in New Jersey, and wherever else sexual orientation and civil union laws take root.