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Victory for New Jersey Couple Discriminated Against by Methodist Church
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 01/18/12
Last updated on: 01/18/12
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Luisa Paster and Harriet Bernstein (detail from a photograph on ACLU's website).

A New Jersey administrative law judge has finally issued a ruling in a long-running case that tests the state's Law Against Discrimination. The case originated when the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association denied Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster the use of a boardwalk pavilion for their civil union ceremony in 2007. In a decision released on January 13, 2012, Judge Solomon A. Metzger ruled that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, violated state law when it refused to rent the pavilion to the lesbian couple. The case hinged on the fact that the Association had agreed to make the facility available to the public on a non-discriminatory basis in exchange for a tax exemption.

The case is significant because the religious right has frequently cited it as an example of how marriage equality will somehow infringe on "religious liberty." Of course, when they make that claim, they conveniently distort the facts, particularly the crucial facts that the Camp Meeting Association eagerly sought the tax exemption that enabled them to rent out their facility to the public and, in return, agreed to obey New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination.

The case has taken a long time to get to this ruling. It began in March 2007, when Bernstein and Paster 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.

Refused the use of the picturesque open-air ocean-facing pavilion for their ceremony, Bernstein and Paster chose to celebrate their union at a local fishing pier. The community residents showed solidarity with the couple by flying rainbow flags on the day of their ceremony and rallying against the discriminatory action of the Association.

The couple also filed a complaint with New Jersey's Division on Civil Rights. In December 2008, the 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.

Three years later (and almost five years since the violation of their civil rights), Judge Metzger has finally issued his decision, which finds that in March 2007 the pavilion was a public accommodation and that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association breached its agreement to make the pavilion available to the public on an equal basis.

The most interesting aspect of the decision is the revelation of the attempts at deception practiced by the Association. Of course, the fact that religious organizations routinely lie is no longer a surprise, but one assumes that in a legal proceeding lawyers and defendants would be wary of penalties for perjury.

In any case, it is clear that the Association and its lawyers, the Alliance Defense Fund, attempted to mislead the Court by claiming that the pavilion was used as part of the Association's newly concocted "wedding ministry."

As Judge Metzger writes, "While a motion for summary decision is not the place for fact finding, neither may an opponent of the motion blunt summary decision with bald oppositional statements. Respondent filed a certification repeatedly referring to a 'Wedding Ministry.' Yet, respondent's interrogatory answers concede that it created no writing on the subject before March 2007, though weddings at this location had been conducted for at least ten years. There is no indication that couples, particularly those that chose secular vows, or that were of other faiths, were ever told that they were participating in a ministry."

He continues, "Respondent has a lovely venue for weddings and is an organization that undoubtedly supports the idea of weddings. It does not follow, however, that it had a 'wedding ministry,' a transformative phrase that evokes religious mission. The doctrinal foundations for a trans-denominational wedding ministry limited to heterosexual couples might well be found in the biblical citations to which respondent refers, as well as in its Book of Discipline. We do not here debate theology or question beliefs. My point simply is that if such a ministry had existed at the time in question, we would expect to find some trace of it."

In other words, the judge is not happy with the lies the Association concocted in order to defend the suit and justify its discrimination.

The decision may be found here: Bernstein.

Harriet Bernstein expressed gratitude for the decision. "We are pleased with the judge's findings," she said. "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."

Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director, also commented on the ruling. "This decision affirms New Jersey's strong protections against discrimination. When you open your doors to the public, you can't treat same-sex couples differently."

Actually, the Administrative Law Judge's decision may not be the last word in this long-drawn-out case. It has been 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.

My only disappointment with the decision, beyond how long it has taken to receive it, is that Bernstein and Paster asked for no damages and consequently received no compensation for the humiliation and inconvenience caused by the Association's bigotry. Judge Metzger concludes his decision by declining to impose even a nominal penalty, asserting that the Association appeared not to have acted with "ill motive."

"Petitioners have not sought to establish damages and appear fundamentally to be seeking the finding that they were wronged and that respondent was not free to exclude same-sex unions under the conditions that then existed. It does not appear that respondent acted with ill motive. Respondent opposes same-sex unions as a matter of religious belief, and in 2007 found itself on the wrong side of recent changes in the law. I have considered the possibility of a nominal penalty, but conclude that this would serve little. The finding of wrongdoing should be an adequate redress."

I do not think that it is proper to conclude that the Association acted without ill motive when they violated the civil rights of this same-sex couple. Indeed, it seems to me that they deliberately (and I would say, maliciously) chose to inflict distress on this couple. Moreover, they compounded the insult by attempting to justify their violation by contriving an elaborate lie about a "wedding ministry." For this lie alone, the Judge should have levied a penalty.

Nor do I think that the finding of wrongdoing is an adequate redress. I rather doubt that the Association has learned anything from this long process. An assessment of a hefty financial penalty might induce the Association to treat people with respect.

But I am glad that the thinness of the claims of a violation of religious liberty has been exposed as have the attempts of this religious organization to misrepresent the facts in the case.

As Alvin McEwen of Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters is fond of saying, "Lies in the name of religion are still lies."

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