By Robert Schwaneberg
(RNS) Luisa Paster and Harriet Bernstein of Ocean Grove, N.J., say they were not trying to start a federal case when they complained last month to the state’s civil rights agency.
“All that we were trying to accomplish was to have our civil union in the boardwalk pavilion” in Ocean Grove, a popular seaside setting for weddings in years past, Paster said.
But a federal lawsuit is just what Paster and Bernstein provoked. It was filed as a pre-emptive strike by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, the Methodist group that owns the boardwalk pavilion.
The Camp Meeting Association claims its constitutional rights would be violated if it were required to allow civil unions — which conflict with Methodist doctrine — to be performed at the pavilion, an open-sided structure it sometimes uses for religious worship.
“What’s at stake is really the autonomy of a religious organization,” said Brian Raum, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, one of two conservative legal advocacy groups aiding the Camp Meeting Association. “The government can’t force a private Christian organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs.”
The Camp Meeting Association owns all the land in Ocean Grove, a nearly one-square-mile section of Neptune Township originally founded as a seaside religious retreat. Its homeowners lease their land from the group.
The lawsuit seeks a federal court order blocking J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, the state director of civil rights, from enforcing state anti-discrimination law against the Camp Meeting Association. That law’s protections were extended to couples who enter civil unions last February.
Lee Moore, a spokesman for Vespa-Papaleo, called the lawsuit “premature.”
“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,” Moore said. He added that the agency investigates about 1,300 complaints each year.
The lawsuit claims Vespa-Papaleo has violated the Camp Meeting Association’s constitutional rights “by subjecting this patently religious entity to an illegal investigation and threat of prosecution under the law.”
“This case is not about whether civil unions should be allowed,” Raum said. “It’s about whether the government should force a private organization to endorse the message of civil unions.”