NJ agency backs lesbian couple in discrimination case

A government agency in New Jersey determined last week that a religious group violated the state’s nondiscrimination law when it barred a lesbian couple from using its property for a civil-union ceremony. The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights ruled Oct. 23 that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association illegally discriminated against Luisa Paster and Harriet Bernstein in 2007. An administrative-law judge found earlier this year, after the couple filed suit against the association, that there was probable cause that the entity had broken the LGBT-inclusive law; the case was forwarded to the civil-rights agency for a final decision. Division director Craig Sashihara had the ability to reject, modify or adopt the judge’s ruling, and ultimately went with the latter option. The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union handled the lawsuit. Lawrence Lustberg, who represented the couple for ACLU-NJ, praised the ruling. “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,” Lustberg said in a statement. Paster and Bernstein said in a joint statement that they were “thrilled” with the ruling. “[OGCMA has] lost on every level,” they said. Garden State Equality chair Steven Goldstein called the ruling “eminently fair and just.” The couple did not seek financial restitution in their suit, so the association will emerge from the litigation with only a warning from the Division on Civil Rights. The association, which describes itself as a religious organization, had long rented out its boardwalk pavilion for weddings. Paster and Bernstein, residents of nearby Neptune, applied in 2007 to use the property for their ceremony but, days later, their application fee was returned with little explanation. After the couple was denied access to the property and went public with their case, the association stopped using the pavilion for unions. The association, which has a nonprofit status, had for years received a tax exemption from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Following the Paster and Bernstein incident, however, the agency denied the association’s tax exemption, as it found it was not complying with the stipulation that its property must be open to all people equally. Goldstein noted, however, that there is still “a long road ahead” in educating all public and private New Jersey entities on the laws involving LGBT discrimination. “It’s important to remember the essential fact of this case,” Goldstein told PGN this week. “The plaintiffs and the LGBT community as a whole have never been looking to dictate what should be done on anyone’s private land. But ruling after ruling has conferred that this is public property that has received government funding. You cannot discriminate on public property that receives government funding. Period.” The Camp Meeting Association will have 30 days to appeal the ruling. The association describes itself as a Methodist ministry. It owns much of the land in the small North Jersey town, which borders LGBT enclave Asbury Park. Earlier this year, the group was back in the headlines for hosting an event with antigay actor Kirk Cameron.