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Trenton, N.J. – New Jersey officials said Monday (Dec. 29) that a lesbian couple can move forward with their discrimination complaint against a Methodist group that refused to let them use an oceanfront pavilion for a civil union.
Since the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association regularly made the pavilion available for public use, including weddings, it was bound by the state Law Against Discrimination from barring civil unions, said J.
Frank Vespa-Papaleo, director of the state’s Division on Civil Rights.
The use of the pavilion was not dedicated solely to the practice of religion, so applying the anti-discrimination statute would not impair the association’s “free exercise of religion,” Vespa-Papaleo added.
The division rejected a similar discrimination claim by a second gay couple, because they applied for a permit for the pavilion two days after the association banned all weddings at the site.
Lawrence Lustberg, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, called the decision “a spectacular victory.”
“The primary message of the decision is, once you open your facility to the general public, then it’s got to remain open on a nondiscriminatory basis,” Lustberg said.
Brian Raum, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz., group that represents the Camp Meeting Association, said his clients would continue to fight against being forced to allow civil unions on the property.
“Our position is the same,” he told the Associated Press. “A Christian organization has a constitutional right to use their facilities in a way that is consistent with their beliefs.”
For years, the association, which owns all land in the nearly one-square-mile section of Neptune Township, used the pavilion for both religious services and public events. But the association rejected a 2007 application of Ocean Grove residents Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, saying their civil union would conflict with the association’s Methodist beliefs.
After the couple filed a complaint with the state Division on Civil Rights, the association countered with a federal lawsuit seeking to stop the state investigation. In November 2007, U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano dismissed the association’s complaint and allowed the division to continue its investigation. That decision is on appeal to the 3rd U.S.
Circuit Court.
Bernstein said she and Paster are “thrilled” with yesterday’s decision, and noted they are not seeking monetary compensation.
“We’re hoping now because of this decision they will reopen the pavilion to be used and enjoyed by everyone,” she said. “We got out of this the satisfaction of knowing justice prevailed. A wrong has been recognized and hopefully will be righted.”
By Mary Ann Spoto
Religion News Service
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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