Judge Rules Christian facility cannot ban same-sex civil union ceremony on its own premises
OCEAN GROVE, New Jersey, January 13, 2012, (LifeSiteNews.com) - A New Jersey judge ruled against a Christian retreat house that refused to allow a same-sex civil union ceremony to be conducted on its premises, ruling the Constitution allows “some intrusion into religious freedom to balance other important societal goals.”
On Thursday, administrative judge Solomon A. Metzger ruled that religious liberty did not exempt the seaside retreat, which is associated with the United Methodist Church, from renting its facilities out for purposes that violate its moral beliefs.
In March 2007, Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association declined Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster’s request to rent its Boardwalk Pavilion for the ceremony. The couple sued, claiming they had been discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. In December 2008, the state Division on Civil Rights found the Christian campground had likely violated the state Law Against Discrimination (LAD) and joined the case.
The United Methodist Church teaches, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and that “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”
But Judge Metzger said church doctrine was irrelevant. “As to ‘free exercise’ [of religion], the LAD is a neutral law of general application designed to uncover and eradicate discrimination; it is not focused on or hostile to religion,” he wrote. The free exercise clause did not factor into his ruling, he stated, but “a much lower standard that tolerates some intrusion into religious freedom to balance other important societal goals.” He believed the “arm’s-length nature of the transactions” gave Ocean Grove “comfortable distance from notions incompatible with its own beliefs.”
“He said this isn’t a case of religious liberty, which is simply not true,” Jim Campbell, who represented the resort and serves as litigation staff counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), told LifeSiteNews.com. “What this case involves at its core is the rights of a religious group to use its property in a way that is consistent with its religious beliefs.”
Campbell said most people will find Metzger’s belief that the state can force a religious facility to violate its conscience “a very scary concept. If that is a principle of the law, then essentially the government can cast aside religion if it deems something more important.” Campbell called Metzger’s ruling “an error of Constitutional law.”
Metzger agreed in his ruling that Ocean Grove “is fundamentally a religious organization, free to form its mission without government oversight or intrusion” and that its owners had not “acted with ill-motive.” The facility “opposes same-sex unions as a matter of religious belief, and in 2007 found itself on the wrong side of recent changes in the law.”
Mark D. Tooley, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, told LifeSiteNews.com, “It’s commendable that the Ocean Grove campground tried to remain faithful to the doctrines and practices of its own denomination by refusing to host a same-sex ritual at their pavilion.” The IRD describes its mission as “working to reaffirm the church’s biblical and historical teachings.”
“It is sad and potentially dangerous that New Jersey law is attempting to compel a religious organization to hold a same-sex ritual on their property,” he said.
Campbell believes the ruling was wrong on numerous grounds. Ocean Grove originally held a local property tax exemption, which required “equal access.” While the resort is open to all, he said nothing in the statute allows the public to make any use it wishes of Ocean Grove’s property. The facility has since received tax exempt status as a religious institution.
Metzger ruled that, since the facility allowed non-Christians to use its facility for marriage, it had no doctrinal limitations. But Methodists do not limit their sacramental ministry to Christians and historically do not recognize marriage as a sacrament.
The local ruling seems to place non-discrimination above concerns of religious liberty, the mirror image of a Supreme Court ruling that took place earlier in the week. In the Hosanna-Tabor case, Chief Justice John Roberts ruled: “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.” He concluded, “the First Amendment has struck the balance for us.”
While Metzger sided with the lesbian couple, he did not impose the financial penalties they sought, saying that the finding of wrongdoing “should serve as an adequate redress.”
The campground’s owners have not yet determined whether they will take further action.