Agency affirms ruling that group violated promise to keep pavilion available to public on equal basis in exchange for tax subsidies
|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.
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