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Religious Tolerance logo

Civil Unions & Same-sex Marriage (SSM) in New Jersey

Part 1: 2007-MAR to 2012-JAN: Couple sought a
location for a civil union. Methodist group sought
freedom to discriminate. Court hears conflict.

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In this web site:
"SSM" refers to same-sex marriage;
LGBT refers to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals

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The conflict:

The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is a Methodist religious group in New Jersey. They own a pavilion and other facilities in Ocean Grove, NJ. The pavilion was once a very popular location for wedding ceremonies and other celebrations.

According to a news release of the American Civil Liberties Association of New Jersey:

[Harriet] Bernstein, 70, a grandmother and retired school administrator, and [Luisa] 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 [had] passed a law allowing for civil unions. The couple, who live in the Ocean Grove section of Neptune [Township], wanted their ceremony to take place at the Ocean Grove Boardwalk Pavilion, an open-air wood-framed seating area facing the Atlantic Ocean.

At that time, same-sex couples in New Jersey were permitted to enter into civil unions but were not allowed to marry. This restriction has continued. As of 2013-SEP, the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act had been passed by the New Jersey House and Senate which would have made marriage available to loving, committed same-sex couples. However, it was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie (R), in violation of the wishes of most adults in the state and in violation of the state Constitution. If a miracle happens and his veto is overturned by the Legislature, or if the state marriage act is found to be unconstitutional then same-sex marriage would become legal. 1 The 2012-JAN-19 Quinnipiac public opinion survey showed a 10 percentage point margin in favor of SSM (52% in favor vs 42% opposed). With the passage of time, the increase in national acceptance of SSMs, and five additional states having legalized SSM since the poll was taken, the margin would probably be about 15%, if the survey were repeated in late 2013.

During 2007-MAR, the same-sex couple approached the Association to rent the use of the pavilion for their civil union. The Association refused their request, telling them that civil unions violated the group's Methodist principles. The Association felt obligated to follow the teachings of the United Methodist Church (UMC), which currently teaches that:

  • "Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth."

  • The "practice of homosexuality [is] incompatible with Christian teaching."

  • The "United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality."

  • No "self-avowed practicing homosexuals [are to be] certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church." 2

Thus, the UMC does not allow its clergy to bless same-sex civil unions or marriages in their facilities. The denomination's position is unchanged today and cannot be changed until their next general meeting in 2016.

Normally, there would have been no recourse for the couple because religious groups are typically exempt from human rights legislation in the states and provinces of North America. They are allowed to discriminate on any basis that they wish. Faith groups have in the past discriminated against engaged couples on the basis of the latter's age, gender, race, religion, sincerity, maturity, physical disability, etc. Some still do. However, the case in Ocean Grove was a violation of the human rights legislation because the Association had previously entered into a contract that gave it tax benefits as long as it ran its pavilion as a "public accommodation" with equal access to all members of the public. This included persons of all three sexual orientations. The eventual result was a complaint by the lesbian couple that was resolved in favor of the couple in mid-2012-JAN.

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Manipulation of the Ocean Grove conflict by an anti-SSM television commercial:

As of early 2012, there have been 30 o 31 (sources differ) instances when the public has voted on a state constitutional amendment, government created referendum, or citizen initiative concerning same-sex marriage. All had been rejected by the voters, although by gradually reduced margins. Proposition 8 in California in 2008 was perhaps the most famous. It terminated new SSMs in that state after about 36,000 lesbians, gays and bisexuals had been married.

Each of these votes has resulted in large expenditures by both sides to promote their cause. Promoting Prop. 8 cost about 40 million dollars that was raised primarily by Roman Catholics, the main Mormon church, some evangelical groups, and the memberships of these denominations. A similar amount was invested by pro-marriage equality groups. It narrowly passed with a margin of a few percentage points. Subsequently, a federal district court in California ruled that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. During 2012-FEB, a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ordered SSMs to continue as of 2013-JUN-26

Much of the investment by both pro and anti marriage equality groups is typically in the form of TV ads. These were often fear-based, simply because studies have shown that fear is a particularly effective way of modifying people's religious beliefs. The ads that are pro-equality often described the vulnerability of same-sex couples and their children who lack the protections of marriage. During early battles, the ads that opposed SSM often attempted to trigger fear among Christians that if SSM were legalized, it would do permanent damage to the institution of marriage itself. However, this approach failed to gain much traction among the public because opposite-sex couples could not understand how the marriages of a small percentage of same-sex couples could damage the vast majority of marriages which involve opposite-sex couples. Later, groups opposed to marriage equality have tried to claim that the legalization of SSM would result in widespread attacks on their religious freedoms.

One famous ad was created by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). 3 NOM's sole goal is to prevent loving, committed same-sex couples from being allowed to marry anywhere in the U.S. Their 60 second TV ad titled "A Gathering Storm" was launched on 2009-APR-08. According to OneNewsNow, a fundamentalist Christian news source, the ad was part of a $1.5 million ad campaign to "protect marriage and religious liberty throughout the nation." 4

The ad featured three individuals -- apparently actors -- who explained how the homosexual "agenda" had harmed them and attacked their personal religious freedom. None of their arguments really made much sense:

  • One person was a physician from California who said that she "... must choose between my faith and my job." She had been hired by a fertility clinic that provided service to the entire public. However, she was unwilling to treat any lesbian or gay clients because of her religious beliefs. Any employee who refused to see clients of a certain gender, or race, or religion, etc. can expect to be fired for not doing their job.

  • Another was a mother who was: "... helplessly watching public schools teach my son that gay marriage is OK." She lives in Massachusetts where the government legalized SSM in 2004. If the school had not mentioned that same-sex couples could marry in the state, they would be leaving out an important fact from their teaching about the institution of marriage. Their job is to educate children about the real world, not selectively censoring parts of it.

  • The third person was a representative of: "a New Jersey church group punished by the government because we cannot support same-sex marriage." That group is the OGCMA. They were "punished" by having their tax exempt status terminated. But the cause of their problem was not their religious beliefs as the ad stated. It was due to their decision to violate a government contract which required them to grant access to the entire public. This means, equal access to persons of all sexual orientations. If they had not broken the contract, they would have been exempt from any form of prosecution and would not have been "punished."

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The lawsuit:

Luisa and Harriet maintained that the pavilion is a "public accommodation" because it had always been available for rent and use by the general public for weddings and other functions. The Association viewed its pavilion as a church. The policies of the denomination to which they are affiliated required them to discriminate against same-sex couples by not permitting civil union ceremonies for same-sex couples. The Association claimed that their constitutional right to discriminate against minorities would be violated if they were required to permit civil unions to be held on their facilities.

The OGCMA perceived the matter as a religious freedom issue. The term "religious freedom" once referred to freedom of belief, freedom of association, freedom to proselytize, etc. The term is rapidly changing. It no longer refers to freedom from oppression by governments or other religions. It is now often the freedom of religious groups to discriminate against others -- often sexual minorities. The former victims have become the new victimizer.

The Association decided to avoid future problems by denying all subsequent applications for wedding or civil union ceremonies in the pavilion to all couples -- both opposite-sex and same-sex. They decided to disappoint many opposite-sex couples just so that they would be free to discriminate against the relatively few same-sex couples.

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Discussion of this topic continues in Part 2

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Steven Goldstein, "Victory in Ocean Grove: What it represents, and doesn’t represent," Garden State Equality, 20112-JAN-13, at:
  2. "Homosexuality and Methodism," Wikipedia, as of 2012-FEB-08, at:
  3. National Organization for Marriage's web site is at:
  4. "A gathering storm," One News Now, at:

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Site navigation: Home > Homosexuality > Same-sex marriage > SSM Menu > New Jersey > here

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Copyright © 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2012-FEB-11
Latest update: 2012-FEB-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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