December 29, 2008
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Harriet Bernstein & Luisa Paster

NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey won a victory today on behalf of a couple that was denied use of an Ocean Grove boardwalk pavilion for their civil union reception. The New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, Division on Civil Rights, issued a "finding of probable cause" that the Ocean Grove Camp Meetings Association violated the state's anti-discrimination law.

"The unexpected results of this painful incident have been a renewed sense of community and energy in Ocean Grove, evidenced by the flying of hundreds equality flags, fundraising events, porch parties, and support for local restaurants," said ACLU-NJ client Luisa Paster in a statement from Ocean Grove United, a group of residents committed to civil rights for all. "We now look forward to the Camp Meeting Association lifting its ban on the use of the pavilion and allowing both marriage and civil union ceremonies to take place there on an equal basis."

Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, both residents of the Ocean Grove section of Neptune City, had planned to hold a civil union ceremony at the pavilion shortly after the 2006 civil union law passed. The Ocean Grove Camp Meetings Association, a private body responsible for granting applications to use the site, denied their application, claiming that civil unions violated the group's Methodist principles.

"The Camp Meeting Association could have limited use of the pavilion to its own members," said Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, P.C., who represents the couple as a cooperating attorney for the ACLU-NJ. "However, once the Association opens its facility to the general public, then it must remain open on a nondiscriminatory basis."

The Division on Civil Rights ruled that the Camp Meetings Association was not entitled to an exemption to New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination because use of the property was both commercial and publicly advertised, and because the Camp Meeting Association agreed to make the pavilion available for public use in order to obtain a state tax break. The Ocean Grove Camp Meetings Association's tax-exempt status was revoked in 2007 because of its discriminatory practices.

"Just two weeks after the Civil Union Review Commission found that civil unions are separate and unequal, we have a flesh-and-blood case illustrating how couples are treated differently," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "This decision brings us one step closer to stopping a parallel system of unequal rights."

The case will now go before an Administrative Law Judge for final disposition.

The ACLU-NJ also represents Emily Sonnessa and Jan Moore, who likewise sought to hold their civil union in the pavilion. The Division on Civil Rights did not find probable cause in their case because the couple applied to use the pavilion after the Camp Meeting Association closed the pavilion to both civil unions and weddings.