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Beliefnet News

Methodist Group Files Lawsuit Over Civil Union Flap

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.”

  • Joey

    Honest question—when did NJ start doing civil unions?
    I don’t think churches should be forced to endorse a marriage they don’t agree with—so the question is, does this land owned by the church count the same way. Legally, I don’t know. (Incidently, if I understand right, it sounds like this boardwalk does the kind of really quick, mini-Vegas-type weddings—if I were the churches involved, I wouldn’t let ANY kind of pseudo-marriage like that on my land.) It also begs the question, if a church can’t forced to marry, can it be forced to do a civil union, since it ISN’T technically a marriage? (I would think they wouldn’t be forced to do that, but still, something to think about for those who think civil unions “aren’t equal.” :-)
    God bless.

  • Henrietta22

    Joey, there’s two of these articles on beliefnet. If you follow the arrow on the right hand side of this bottom you’ll see what I posted about this case from a NJ newspaper, and my acquaintance with this area. NJ passed Civil Unions for ss couples some months ago.

  • Windsors Child

    It seems so simple. Under the United States Constitution religious organizations are protected from government-mandated directives that violate the organization’s stated theological position. Although this lawsuit may be premature, I understand the Methodist’s desire to do all they can to protect themselves. As I see it, two people asked for permission to use private property for their own use and were turned down by the owners of the property. That should end the case. Religious organizations are under no legal obligation to use their property in ways that violate their theology. Case closed.

  • Joseph Ceh

    I don’t understand why institutional religions are so preoccupied with sex vs sexuality; consumed with genitals vs gender and love.
    These religions prostitute the Gospel message by ignoring the fundamental law of the New Testament, of Christ, namely Love. Let the churches become preoccupied with less judgement and condemnation and let the Lord do the judging, condemning, accepting, welcoming.

  • Gaston

    RE: “I don’t understand why institutional religions are so preoccupied with sex vs sexuality; consumed with genitals vs gender and love.
    These religions prostitute the Gospel message by ignoring the fundamental law of the New Testament, of Christ, namely Love. Let the churches become preoccupied with less judgement and condemnation and let the Lord do the judging, condemning, accepting, welcoming.” -Joseph Ceh
    This is an often used and simplistic argument used -by anti-christian groups/ individuals- everytime the church takes a stand on anything that goes against its doctrine. Jesus DID spend much time with “sinners” such as prostitutes, tax collectors (thiefs), etc. BUT…when an individual believed and repented Jesus’ reply was “go and sin no more.” He was a healer not only physically, but spiritually and never condoned the actions of the people he reached out to.
    With that being said, the church should reach out, but never condone what is biblically considered sin. What does eveyone think… yea or nay?

  • Joseph Ceh

    You puppet institutional garbage not Christ’s/Biblical values. Why do you, and persons so attached to organized religion, perpetuate blind adherence to man-made doctrine and “dogma”?

  • flakeyOregonian

    Let me preface this by saying I no longer consider myself a Christian and that I am in favor of same sex unions. In this case, however, I must agree that the owners of the pavilion, a Methodist group, should not be required to let anyone use it if they do not choose to do so, for any reason. Rather than a civil rights issue or even a religious freedom issue, I see this more as a personal property issue.
    Is it nice that a self-proclaimed Christian group chooses to discriminate against a gay couple? Absolutely not. Should they be forced to allow the couple to use their property? I don’t think so. And, given the owners of the pavilion’s beliefs, I wouldn’t think the couple would want to use it. Just my 2 cents’ worth.

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