Saturday, January 10, 2009

Church property and public use

Last month the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights found probable cause in a discrimination claim brought by a lesbian couple against a religious group that refused to rent its property to the couple to perform a civil union ceremony. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is non-profit group affiliated with the Methodist Church, and until recently it rented out its Boardwalk Pavilion to the public for receptions and other events. In addition to being rented for events, worship services were held there every week. The rest of the time the Pavilion was completely open to the public. However, the Association refused to rent the Pavilion to Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster for their civil union ceremony because such unions conflicted with the Association's beliefs. United Methodist Church policy “recognizes marriage only in terms of a covenant relationship between one man and one woman,” and provides that civil union ceremonies “shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”

In its Finding the NJ Division of Civil Rights held:
When it invites the public at large to use it, the [Ocean Grove Camp Meeting] Association is subject to the [New Jersey] Law Against Discrimination, and enforcement of that law in this context does not affect the Association’s constitutionally protected right to free exercise of religion.
The Association stopped renting the Pavilion for events after April 1, 2007. Another lesbian couple tried to rent the facility after that point and sued when they were rejected, but the NJ Division of Civil Rights rejected that case.

I'm not licensed in New Jersey but I have a few thoughts on this issue. The clear message from the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights is that churches should think twice before they make their property available to the public. For the most part, the Mormon Church is ahead of this trend, controlling most of its property in such a way that it could not be construed to be public use. However, the result of the Division's ruling is lamentable, since it prevents certain religious organizations from providing a service to their communities.

Secondly, this case underscores the growing conflict between the gay rights movement and religious liberties. Presumably, a different religious organization that does not object to same-sex marriages or civil unions would still be free to operate a facility such as the Boardwalk Pavilion. This can have significant tax financial implications for religious organizations. In this case, the Association had received a tax exemption under the New Jersey Green Acres program, which provides tax benefits to organizations that make their land available for public use. The Boardwalk Pavilion property's tax-exempt status was revoked by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection after the Association stopped renting the property to the public. This case reminds me to some extent of the famous Bob Jones University Supreme Court case.

The Religion Clause notes that an appeal related to this case is pending before the 3rd Circuit, so we haven't heard the last of the Boardwalk Pavilion.

Photo credit: Asbury Park Press.