By Peter J. Smith
OCEAN GROVE, New Jersey, August 15, 2007 (LifeSiteNews.com) - A Christian seaside retreat association is suing New Jersey state officials for threatening to prosecute it for rejecting a same-sex couple’s bid to hold a civil union ceremony on its property.
The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA), an affiliate of the United Methodist Church, filed a federal lawsuit Saturday after the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights continued to investigate whether the Christian organization could face prosecution for violating laws prohibiting discrimination against "sexual orientation."
The Civil Rights Division was investigating the OGCMA for rejecting the request of Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster to use the Christian association’s boardwalk pavilion for their "civil union" ceremony, which the OGCMA said violated the doctrines and beliefs contained in the UMC’s Book of Discipline. The lesbian couple then filed a June 19 complaint with the state attorney general’s office demanding "whatever relief is provided by law" including unspecified "compensatory damages for economic loss, humiliation, [and] mental pain." (Represented by the Messina Law Firm, Independence Law Center, and Alliance Defense Fund, the OGCMA asserts in its lawsuit that the attorney general’s office is violating First Amendment protections of the rights to free speech, freedom of expressive association, and free exercise of religion.
"Religious groups have the right to make their own decisions without government interference," said Brian Raum, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. "The government can’t force a private Christian organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs."
The New Jersey attorney general’s office, however, has called the lawsuit "premature", and stated the Civil Rights Division has made no 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," said Lee Moore, a spokesman for the AG.
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination currently forbids those who "offer goods, services, and facilities to the general public" from "directly or indirectly denying or withholding any accommodation, service, benefit, or privilege to an individual" on the basis of sexual orientation. Under New Jersey’s anti-discrimination laws the OGCMA would be subject to prosecution if state officials rule its facilities places of public accommodation.
The suit demands that the court find the law unconstitutional in its application to the OGCMA and recognize the Christian organization’s right to use its buildings, facilities, and property "for purposes consistent with its sincerely held religious beliefs." The suit also seeks nominal damages, attorney’s fees and costs, and any other just relief.