|Harriet Bernstein & Luisa Paster|
NEWARK – The director of New Jersey’s Division on Civil Rights has concluded that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA) discriminated against a same-sex couple based on sexual orientation and violated the state’s Law Against Discrimination when it refused to rent its boardwalk pavilion to the couple for their civil union ceremony.
The decision, issued today, upholds a ruling by an administrative law judge that was issued in January. The Director of the Division on Civil Rights, Craig Sashihara, could have adopted, modified, or rejected the administrative law judge’s ruling. Today’s decision can be appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court.
“Once again, the state has concluded that Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association discriminated against Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster in 2007,” said Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, P.C., who represents the couple as a cooperating attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “This decision reaffirms a central principle of fairness in our society: if you receive a public subsidy to run your facility, it has to be open to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.”
In his decision, Sashihara concluded that the boardwalk pavilion was a public accommodation because OGCMA invited the public to use the facility and received direct tax support from the government requiring it to be used on a non-discriminatory basis.
“(OGCMA) was not ‘free to promise equal access, to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their religion, and then except’ (Paster and Bernstein) when such action clearly violates the laws of this state,” Sashihara wrote.
Bernstein said they welcomed the state’s decision. “We are thrilled. They have lost on every level.”
The couple decided to celebrate their commitment with a civil union in 2007, shortly after New Jersey passed a law allowing for civil unions. The couple, who live in the Ocean Grove section of Neptune, wanted their ceremony to take place at the Ocean Grove Boardwalk Pavilion, an open-air wood-framed seating area facing the Atlantic Ocean.
The pavilion was rented out for weddings and was used for community and charitable events and the owners of the property, Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, received a tax exemption from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres program, which provides exemptions to non-profit organizations who use their property for recreational or conservation purposes. An important condition of the exemption is that the property be “open for public use on an equal basis.”
In March 2007, the couple went to the office of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association and filled out an application to reserve the pavilion for their civil union. Days later, association officials denied their application and returned their $250 deposit.
The couple filed a complaint with the state Division on Civil Rights on June 19, 2007.
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) released a midterm report card for Gov. Chris Christie today (182k PDF), issuing mostly low marks for his administration’s handling of critical civil liberties issues such as reproductive freedom and free speech.
The report card examines Christie’s record on an array of civil liberties issues during his first two years in office. The ACLU-NJ issued a similar report card for Newark Mayor Cory Booker (229k PDF) in 2009 during his first term in office.
“Christie has two years to turn a mediocre civil liberties record into a testament to individual rights,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. “The people of New Jersey expect a leader who will stand up for their freedoms, not one who will let them know that despite his unfair policies, his heart is in the right place. It’s time for Gov. Christie’s good intentions to turn into policies that strengthen our rights and improve our lives.”
The ACLU-NJ issued the following grades:
|Harriet Bernstein & Luisa Paster|
NEWARK – A state administrative law judge has ruled (50k PDF) that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association violated the state’s Law Against Discrimination when it denied Ocean Grove residents Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster the use of its boardwalk pavilion for their 2007 civil union ceremony. The association had allowed members of the public to rent the pavilion and had never before declined a permit other than for scheduling conflicts until it received Paster and Bernstein’s reservation request. The association rejected the couple’s application to use the space, stating that civil unions violated its Methodist doctrine.
“The Camp Meeting Association could have used the pavilion exclusively for its own purposes,” said Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, P.C., who represents the couple as a cooperating attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “The judge found, however, that the association opened the pavilion up to the public and thus was obligated to follow anti-discrimination laws.”
“We are pleased with the judge’s findings,” said Harriet Bernstein. “When we first started planning our civil union, we had no idea that it would come to this. We weren’t asking the association to change their beliefs. We just wanted them to give us the same opportunity to use a beautiful space that we had seen open for public use.”
Paster and Bernstein celebrated their civil union at a fishing pier in Ocean Grove, a quarter mile from the pavilion on June 30, 2007. By then, the community rallied around the couple, showing support by raising flags around town that symbolized LGBT equality.
“Fortunately, out of this painful incident, Ocean Grove residents have a renewed sense of community and have come together to support equality,” said Luisa Paster.
In his written decision, Judge Solomon A. Metzger of the Office of Administrative Law found that in March 2007, when Paster and Bernstein filled out a reservation form, the pavilion was a public accommodation. The judge determined that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association breached its agreement to make the pavilion available to the public on an equal basis. The association was also required to make the pavilion public in exchange for a state tax exemption it received that requires equal access on a non-discriminatory basis. Metzger also noted that while the association is free to practice its mission without government oversight, it had never attached any religious ministry to the wedding venue until it received Paster and Bernstein’s application.
“(The association) was not, however, free to promise equal access to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition and then except (Bernstein and Paster),” Judge Metzger stated.
The administrative law judge’s decision is sent to the Director of the Division on Civil Rights who has 45 days to adopt, modify or reject it as part of the Director’s final decision; otherwise, it becomes a final decision. Once a final decision is issued, a party may appeal to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court.
Bernstein, 70, a grandmother and retired school administrator and Paster, 64, a retired academic librarian, met at a retreat in the Poconos in 2000. The couple decided to celebrate their commitment with a civil union in 2007, shortly after New Jersey passed a law allowing for civil unions. The couple, who live in the Ocean Grove section of Neptune, wanted their ceremony to take place at the Ocean Grove Boardwalk Pavilion, an open-air wood-framed seating area facing the Atlantic Ocean.
The pavilion was used for community and charitable events and the owners of the property, Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, received a tax exemption from the state Green Acres program, which provides exemptions to non-profit organizations who use their property for recreational or conservation purposes. An important condition of the exemption is that the property be “open for public use on an equal basis.”
In March 2007, the couple went to the office of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association and filled out an application to reserve the pavilion for their civil union. Days later, association officials denied their application and returned their $250 deposit. When Paster and Bernstein sought an explanation, they were told civil unions violated the group’s Methodist principles.
Paster and Bernstein filed a complaint with the state Division on Civil Rights.
In December 2008, the state Division on Civil Rights found probable cause that the association violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. The case proceeded to the state Administrative Law Judge for disposition.
“This decision affirms New Jersey’s strong protections against discrimination,” said Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director. “When you open your doors to the public, you can’t treat same-sex couples differently.”
The case is captioned Bernstein et al v. Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, OAL DKT. NO. CRT 6145-09.
NEWARK — Although we do not agree with the sentiments expressed on Union Township teacher Viki Knox’s personal Facebook page, her beliefs and comments are protected by the First Amendment. But because her postings raise questions about her conduct within school, the school district can and should investigate whether she is performing her job in accordance with school policies and the state's Law Against Discrimination.
The ACLU believes that the response to offensive speech is not the restriction of speech, but more speech, which is why the ACLU has created programs like the "Don’t Filter Me" project, which ensures the public schools aren’t illegally denying students access to positive, affirming information about LGBT issues. The ACLU-NJ has participated in this program and successfully advocated for a school in Vineland to remove a filter blocking sites that were supportive of LGBT issues.
Ms. Knox’s Facebook comments highlight the work that still needs to be done to help people understand why LGBT equality is so important. The ACLU will continue working hard to make sure public schools are safe for all students, including LGBT students, in New Jersey and in communities across the country.
NEWARK, N.J. — A New Jersey school district has removed filters that blocked lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender related websites after receiving student complaints and the American Civil Liberties Union questioned the district about its use of Internet filters. The inquiry is part of a national “Don’t Filter Me” campaign by the ACLU and Yale Law School to combat illegal censorship of pro-LGBT information on public school computer systems.
The Vineland School District in Cumberland County had been using filtering software provided by Blue Coat, which has a specialized filter called “LGBT.” The district removed the filters from its high school computers on March 31, 2011 — just days after the ACLU of New Jersey submitted an open records request for documents about filtering software. The district subsequently agreed to remove the LGBT filter from middle school computers as well.
Other ACLU affiliates in Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Virginia sent letters today demanding they stop similar viewpoint-based censorship of web content geared toward LGBT communities.
“There is no legitimate reason why any public school should be using an anti-LGBT filter,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney at the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Project. “This is not a case where overbroad filters are accidentally filtering out LGBT websites. These filters are designed to discriminate and are programmed specifically to target LGBT-related content that would not otherwise be blocked as sexually explicit or inappropriate.”
Justin Rodriguez and Shaun Laurencio, two students at Vineland High School had been complaining to their school for three years about various LGBT websites being blocked, and renewed their complaints at the same time the ACLU asked about the district’s filtering policies.
“What really hit this home for me was when I was writing a paper for class about Harvey Milk, but every site with information about his life was blocked for having ‘LGBT content,’” said Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior at Vineland High School. Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the U.S. and is a respected historical figure; his birthday is a state holiday in California.
Rodriguez added, “Seeing all these websites that are considered somehow unacceptable because of something I am was really offensive to me.”
Laurencio, an 18-year-old senior, said they had to badger the administration every time they discovered an obstacle.
“At first they’d unblock whatever specific site we’d asked about, but after a while they stopped unblocking the sites,” Laurencio said. “It was really discouraging.”
“Unblocking individual sites is not a viable solution,” said Block. “As long as the anti-LGBT filter is in place, students will be confronted with a demeaning and stigmatizing message that the site has been blocked on account of its LGBT-related content. It’s unfair to put students in the difficult position of asking special permission before being allowed to access LGBT viewpoints. Public schools have a duty to provide students with viewpoint-neutral access to the Internet.”
The ACLU of New Jersey has also filed open records requests with 26 districts in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, requesting contracts with Internet filtering software providers, policies about the use of software and any communication with software vendors that mention filters related to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender-related content.
A video showing students how to test whether or not their schools are illegally filtering content, and providing instructions for reporting censorship is available.
Students who want to report unconstitutional web filtering at their schools can fill out this form.
More information on the ACLU’s work on LGBT school issues can be found here: www.aclu.org/safeschools
Newark, N.J. - For five decades, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has been a gale force in the most critical social debates of our time and a vigilant guardian of civil rights for all.
In June, the ACLU-NJ will mark the 50th anniversary of its founding and celebrate its standing as one of the largest and most active affiliates in the nation. Created to counter the growing pressures on civil liberties in the state, the affiliate's first official meeting took place on the night of June 16, 1960. Since its start, the affiliate, which has continued to keep its headquarters in Newark, has seen its membership multiply nearly 10-fold, from 1,600 people to more than 15,000.
"We believe that the liberties in the Bill of Rights belong to every American, to all the people in New Jersey regardless of their political beliefs, race, religion or national origin," ACLU-NJ founder and longtime President Emil Oxfeld said in the original press release announcing the formation of the state's affiliate. "We believe these freedoms must be exercised if democracy in our state is to grow and thrive."
Oxfeld went on to list issues that desperately needed attention at the time - due process, racial discrimination, the separation of church and state, and freedom from censorship - all principles the ACLU still defends daily.
"While some of the issues raised in our cases over the years seem archaic by today's standards, many haven't changed at all," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs, who has led the affiliate since 1999, including during the biggest membership spike in its history. "The law has advanced remarkably in areas like women's rights, lesbian and gay rights, and safeguarding personal privacy, but with issues like free speech, police practices and religious freedom, no fight ever stays won."
"The ACLU of New Jersey has been a leader in the crucial civil liberties battles of our time," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the national ACLU. "While each new era brings a wave of assaults on freedom, the ACLU of New Jersey responds swiftly and decisively, protecting the rights of all Garden State residents. It has proven its value on the American political landscape."
Since opening its doors and springing into action - its first official undertaking was commending the Clifton Library's stance against banning books like Lady Chatterley's Lover - the ACLU-NJ has doggedly worked for justice and equality in New Jersey.
In its first decade the ACLU-NJ took strong action following the 1967 Newark Rebellion. Staffers took to the streets in the aftermath, painstakingly cataloguing police abuses to the ACLU-NJ would refer to in its demands for reform. The New Jersey affiliate also emerged even more progressive than the national ACLU, becoming one of the first state affiliates to take a stand against the Vietnam War.
Since those early years, the ACLU-NJ has grown into one of the country's largest and most active state affiliates, with a record of milestones that has earned it a role on the national stage. Among its accomplishments, the ACLU-NJ:
The ACLU-NJ is celebrating the clients, attorneys, leaders and volunteers - many involved in the cases highlighted above - who have built its legacy, from its founders to its future. The stories of these 50 Faces of Liberty can be found at the ACLU-NJ website, http://www.aclu-nj.org
"Society has changed dramatically since our founding, but we've never lost the fire that fuels the ACLU's advocacy," Jacobs added. "We can't always predict what challenges lie ahead for liberty in a changing world, but whatever they are, the ACLU stands ready to defend the fundamental rights of ordinary Americans."
The year-long commemoration will culminate November 4 at the NJ Freedom Fest: A night of laughter and liberties, hosted by comedian Jimmy Tingle and featuring faces from the ACLU past and present, to be held at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick.
Newark - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sent an Open Public Records Act request Friday to the Rancocas Valley School District for documents that will shed light on the district's decision to remove the book Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology from the Rancocas Valley High School library. The book, which shares gay students' coming-out stories and reflections on identity, won the School Library Journal's Adult Books for High School Students Award in 2001.
"The ultimate decision of whether a book can be removed does not rest simply on whether a few individuals or students may be offended," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. "Decisions to censor literature should only be based on a standard set of neutral criteria unrelated to the political or social themes in the book."
The school district made its decision after a political group specifically singled out books with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender themes. The ACLU-NJ filed its request in order to learn whether the school district's policies were applied fairly, without discrimination.
"Educators and school librarians are the best qualified to determine what kinds of books and materials schools should keep in their libraries," said Jacobs. "Neither political groups nor parents have a right to impose their decisions, morals, or values on all students and families."
In 1982, the United States Supreme Court held that school boards have only a limited right to remove books from school libraries. "Local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books," the Court explained. Rather, removals should be based only on "educational suitability," with school boards taking the input of educators into account.
"If we started removing every book that one group or another objects to, our libraries' shelves would practically be bare," Jacobs noted. "The idea is to expose students to a diversity of themes and views, not to tightly restrict the information they receive."
TRENTON - Standing with the state's leading civil rights and minority rights organizations, the ACLU-NJ today called for the end of New Jersey's unequal system of civil unions and demanded the beginning of an era of equality where all people have an equal right to marriage, regardless of their sexual orientation.
"A separate system of rights for a particular minority group has once again failed to fulfill the actual promise of equality, as has been the case throughout history," said Vice Dean of Rutgers-Newark School of Law Ronald Chen, who authored the amicus brief in the case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ and seven other notable minority rights and civil rights organizations.
Although courts have allowed legislatures to enact separate systems of rights for minorities in the past, the ACLU brief explains that judges have always struck down those systems when they are shown to perpetuate disparities. Moreover, the ACLU-NJ argues that a history of excluding a minority group from access to rights is not in itself a public interest that can justify continued exclusionary practices.
The brief cites the evidence that civil unions have not provided the equal protection the court promised in 2006, when it issued a ruling in the first iteration of this case. Since then, couples in civil unions have learned firsthand that an institution so poorly understood cannot actually protect their rights. Couples have found themselves justifying their relationship to those with influence over their lives - from their children's public school teachers to the administrators of county hospitals - who understand marriage, but not the separate new structure created only for them.
"By devaluing certain families and setting them apart from others, it affects how those families are treated in schools, in hospitals, and in almost all daily transactions. And children are most harmed of all," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "Civil unions institute inequality in ways both mundane and profound. Our state must end the daily struggle it imposes on our fellow citizens by having denied them the right to marry."
The ACLU-NJ joined the first filing of Lewis v. Harris in 2002 on behalf of seven same-sex couples seeking the right to marry. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously in October 2006 that granting lesser rights to same-sex couples violated the Constitution. However, the court entrusted the legislature to enact a solution, which resulted in the civil union folly that continues today. Two years later, in 2008, the state's Civil Union Review Commission found the institution fell far short of the equality the court had intended to provide. In January 2009, after an ardent campaign waged on the ground in New Jersey, the New Jersey Senate failed to pass marriage equality when the bill came up for a vote at the end of the legislative session.
The other signatories to the brief submitted today are the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Garden State Bar Association, the Hispanic Bar Association, Legal Momentum, and the National Organization for Women of New Jersey.
NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) announced the resolution of a dispute involving two women who were turned away from a fundraising dance hosted by the organization. The women claimed they and their friends were excluded based on their sexual orientation or gender expression.
"We are grateful that the matter is settled, but even more, we are grateful that this resolution promises to help other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals," stated Cheryl Rogers who, along with her partner Towana Christopher, claim that they and friends were not welcomed at a NOBLE sponsored fundraising dance held in April in Edison, NJ. "While no one should have to face discrimination, we are glad that our experience can lead to stronger ties and greater understanding between police officers and the LGBT community."
While NOBLE did not concede that any act of discrimination occurred, the two groups resolved the dispute amicably, with each gaining a better understanding of the other's views. NOBLE will extend outreach to the lesbian, gay, transgendered and bisexual (LGBT) community, and the complainants have agreed to not to pursue any legal action. Both parties expressed an interest to move forward with a strong commitment to equal rights.
"NOBLE understands the destructive power of discrimination, and we handle every complaint with the seriousness it deserves," said Jessie Lee, Jr., NOBLE's National Executive Director. "We welcome this resolution as a way to help better educate all New Jerseyans about their right to be free from discrimination."
NOBLE, recognizing the pivotal role of law enforcement in building ties with the LGBT community, has agreed to expand its outreach by appearing at events to educate the LGBT community about hate crimes laws and bias crimes. The organization will also post a statement on its website each June - to coincide with Pride Month - expressing its support for equal treatment from law enforcement regardless of anyone's sexual orientation or gender expression.
"We are proud that this resolution creates an opportunity for police officers to build a bridge with the LGBT community," stated ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas, who represented the two women. "This resolution helps not only the women involved, but the rights of all members of the LGBT community."
NOBLE, headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, was founded in 1976 with a mission to ensure equity in the administration of justice in the provision of public service to all communities, and to serve as the conscience of law enforcement by being committed to justice by action.
The ACLU-NJ, based in Newark, implements legal, legislative and public education programs in conjunction with large numbers of volunteers to advance the ACLU's goals of liberty and justice for all.
Decision brings state one-state closer to full marriage rights for gays and lesbians.
NEWARK - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today celebrated a victory in a case that allows a same-sex couple married outside the state to get divorced in the New Jersey courts.
"While the day a relationship ends is never happy, I am relieved that the courts of New Jersey are allowing us to move on, rather than keeping our relationship status in legal limbo," said LaKia Hammond, the ACLU-NJ client who was granted a divorce in New Jersey today. "Breaking up is painful enough, and I'm happy we won't have to face the hardship of having to fight just to make it official."
Despite Hammond's valid marriage in Canada, the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General argued that the couple should not be granted a divorce. Rather, the state attorney suggested that the couple should be granted "dissolution of civil union." However, as the ACLU-NJ argued, without an actual divorce from their marriage, the couple might still be considered legally married in Canada as well as in U.S. states that recognize same-sex marriages but do not have civil unions.
"The judge properly recognized that if you come to New Jersey with a valid marriage, you are entitled to leave with a divorce," said Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, P.C., who, along with Avidan Cover of Gibbons and solo practitioner Stephen Hyland, represented LaKia Hammond as cooperating attorneys for the ACLU-NJ. "Not granting a divorce in this situation would create confusion and undermine the longstanding legal principle of comity, which requires us to respect laws of other countries."
New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson recognized that New Jersey accepts all foreign marriages except for ones that are affronts to New Jersey public policy. The Office of the Attorney General could muster no legitimate argument in this case to justify such an exception, especially given that the New Jersey Supreme Court had made clear that allowing marriages of same-sex couples could be permissible in New Jersey.
In fact, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in Lewis v. Harris that the state cannot create a system that imposes greater legal or economic hardships on same-sex couples that are not placed on opposite-sex couples. Not allowing the couple a divorce would have forced them to begin a second legal process to completely end their legal relationship, placing additional economic and legal burdens on same-sex couples.
"This decision is a step in the right direction, but one that never should have had to be made," said Hyland. "The Attorney General needlessly created confusion and legal problems for these couples. She should simply recognize out-of-state marriages -- the only way to ensure equal treatment for couples married outside of New Jersey."
The decision puts into question the legality of the Attorney General's 2007 formal opinion ordering that out-of-state marriages not be accepted as marriages but, rather, be transformed into civil unions.
Today's decision comes just over a month after the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission, tasked with examining the effects of the 2007 civil union law, determined that the legal category was separate and unequal.
"By creating a separate system of rights and by injecting language and titles not understood or easily incorporated into existing real-life events and transactions, the Civil Unions Law has failed to fulfill the promise of equality," said Ed Barocas in testimony before the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission, which in December 2008 declared civil unions to be separate and unequal. "The continued injustice for our state's gay and lesbian citizens exists on levels both profound and mundane."