Ruling supports lesbian couple in Ocean Grove

The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights issued a finding this week in an LGBT discrimination case, affirming the allegations of a lesbian couple who said they were discriminated against by a religious organization.

Frank Vespa-Papaleo, New Jersey DCR director, issued a finding of probable cause Dec. 29 in a discrimination suit brought against the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association.

Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster filed a complaint with the DCR against the association in June 2007, accusing the organization of violating the state’s Law Against Discrimination, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, among other bases.

The couple submitted an application in March 2007 to rent the association’s pavilion for their civil-union ceremony. The association rejected the couple’s application because it said the Methodist Church, with which it is affiliated, does not recognize same-sex unions.

The association had previously rented the pavilion, located on the beachfront boardwalk, for heterosexual weddings but ceased accepting wedding applications in April 2007.

Also this week, Vespa-Papaleo issued a ruling in the discrimination case of another lesbian couple, Janice Moore and Emily Sonnessa, whose pavilion-rental application was also denied. Vespa-Papaleo found that there was no probable cause in this case because Moore and Sonnessa filed their application after the association had stopped renting the pavilion for weddings.

Vespa-Papaleo’s ruling in the Bernstein-Paster case does not necessarily find the association responsible of an LAD violation but suggests that the evidence presented supports the couple’s claims. Vespa-Papaleo explained the ruling as the civil equivalent of an indictment in a criminal case.

The case will now be transferred to the Office of Administrative Law, where a judge will be assigned and all parties involved will have the chance to present their arguments. Vespa-Papaleo said the non-jury trial probably will not be scheduled for at least six months to a year.

The probable-cause finding cites that the pavilion was used as a public space and that by preventing Bernstein and Paster from using it, the pavilion was not adequately open to all members of the public. The ruling found the pavilion would fall under the category of a “public accommodation” in the LAD as it has been used for weddings, concerts and other events and is frequently utilized by passersby on the boardwalk.

“At the time, the space was advertised as available to the public. It didn’t seem to be a closed space that was inaccessible; the doors were essentially wide open. And there weren’t actually even any doors on the pavilion. People walk in and out of it, and use it to get away from the weather,” Vespa-Papaleo said. “When we determined it as a public accommodation, we looked at the totality of the circumstances, how the place is really used on a day-to-day basis, not necessarily just how it was intended to be used.”

Vespa-Papaleo noted, however, that the association must have also intended the area to be a public space, as that is how it described the location when it applied for state funding.

“What our investigation revealed is that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association actually intended the pavilion to be a public space insofar as they even submitted paperwork to state for funding for beach replenishment from the Department of Environment Protection. They indicated and certified that the area was open to the public. For them to suggest that it’s not flies counter to their certification to the state that it is open to the public.”

The association owns all of the land in the 1-square-mile Ocean Grove, including the pavilion, the beach and even part of the ocean, and maintains that its pavilion should be considered a place of worship, an assertion that Vespa-Papaleo’s ruling rejected.

The association has received both state and federal funding.

In September 2007, the DEP revoked the association’s tax-exempt status because it found that the group violated the exemption’s stipulation that its property must be open to all individuals on an equal basis.

The association had filed suit against the state in August 2007, arguing that the DCR’s investigation violated the organization’s First Amendment rights.

U.S. District Court Judge Joel Pisano threw out the suit Nov. 8, stating that the pavilion was public property, not a religious structure. The association also unsuccessfully attempted twice to halt the investigation.

In this week’s ruling, Vespa-Papaleo said the association’s First Amendment claims are invalid since the pavilion is a public facility.

“When it invites the public at large to use [the pavilion], the association is subject to the 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 ruling stated.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].

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