Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association broke state’s discrimination law when it denied use of its pavilion for couple’s civil union ceremony

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.