Beliefnet News

By Robert Schwaneberg
Religion News Service

(RNS) New Jersey officials have refused to end an investigation of whether a Methodist group in Ocean Grove violated the rights of two lesbian couples by rejecting their applications to rent a seaside pavilion for their civil union ceremonies.
The state Division on Civil Rights rejected a motion by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to dismiss complaints filed by the lesbian couples. The association argued that forcing it to use its property for civil unions would violate its constitutional freedom of religion.
In a five-page letter, Gary LoCassio, assistant director of civil rights, said that could be determined only after further investigation.
He also said that conducting an inquiry “in no way interferes” with the religious liberty of the Methodist group that owns the pavilion.
LoCassio conceded that churches and religious programs are not subject to the state’s anti-discrimination laws, but said it was “far from clear” whether the Methodist group “meets the definition of a church or similar religious organization.”
That, LoCassio said, requires further investigation.
He said the division also must determine whether the association’s rental of its pavilion “is religious or secular in nature.”
It was the Methodist group’s second unsuccessful attempt to bring the investigation to a quick end. In November, a federal judge dismissed the group’s lawsuit claiming the U.S. Constitution protects its right to use its property according to Methodist doctrine.
Larry Lustberg, a lawyer representing the lesbian couples, said his clients are “pleased with the decision and pleased that a full and thorough investigation will proceed.”
Brian Raum, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the Camp Meeting Association, said, “I’m amazed that the state could conclude it’s unsure whether the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is a religious organization. It’s perfectly clear that it is– it’s been operating as one for over 100 years.”
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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