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15 January 2012

Praise: Judge Solomon Metzger Rules on Public Accommodations

In 2007, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster booked the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association's Boardwalk Pavilion, part of the Grove Hall Retreat Center, for their Civil Union Ceremony.  Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is a Methodist organization.  They were then turned away because the ceremony would not be in keeping with the religious views of the owners.  Because the Boardwalk Pavilion was a public accommodation, Ms. Bernstein and Ms. Paster sued.

On Friday, Judge Metzger ruled in favor of the couple.  The Cliffview Pilot takes up the story.
“The Camp Meeting Association could have used the pavilion exclusively for its own purposes,” said Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons, P.C., who represents the couple as a cooperating attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “The judge found, however, that the association opened the pavilion up to the public and thus was obligated to follow anti-discrimination laws.”
“We are pleased with the judge’s findings,” said Harriet Bernstein. “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.”
The ruling was not about religion.
In his written decision, Judge Solomon A. Metzger of the Office of Administrative Law ruled that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association breached its agreement to make the pavilion available to the public on an equal basis.
The association was also required to make the pavilion public in exchange for a state tax exemption it received that requires equal access on a non-discriminatory basis, the judge said.
Metzger also noted that while the association is free to practice its mission without government oversight, it had never attached any religious ministry to the wedding venue until it received Paster and Bernstein’s application.
“(The association) was not, however, free to promise equal access to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition and then except (Bernstein and Paster),” Judge Metzger stated.
With New Jersey in the Marriage Equality spotlight, Garden State Equality's Steven Goldstein wrote, in part:
In a claim that strained credulity, the Association postured that the public pavilion was private even though the Association had accepted a public subsidy for the facility and had signed an agreement to make it open to public on a nondiscriminatory basis.   Over the years, opponents of equality have consistently left those crucial facts out of their propaganda.  Instead, they have falsely claimed that the case represents an infringement on religious civil rights.   Let’s make this clear:  Garden State Equality and our partners in the movement for equality passionately oppose forcing religions and clergy to marry anyone they don’t want to marry.  We oppose with equal fervor forcing any house of worship or other religious institution to host any ceremony they don’t want to host.   The new marriage equality bill, The Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, has religious exemptions that reinforce and strengthen those constitutionally guaranteed religious rights.
This is a tremendous victory for the ACLU of New Jersey, the lawyers in the case, and for their cocounsel, the Gibbons law firm.  The ACLU of New Jersey, Gibbons and Gibbons’ partner in charge of pro bono work who worked this case, Larry Lustberg, have all been honored by Garden State Equality in recent years.  Gibbons, incidentally, is cocounsel to Garden State Equality and same-sex couples in the marriage equality case now before the New Jersey courts, Garden State Equality v. Dow.   Larry is among the amazing lawyers, along with Lambda Legal, presenting our marriage equality case before the courts.  We’re in the very best of hands.
Of course, that didn't stop those opposed to equality from twisting the tale.  Good As You points out that Fox News site Fox Nation claims that Judge Metzger ruled against the Christian faith, with this title:

Judge Says Following Christian Faith is Wrong

The full article at Fox News is without such a huge lie.  The side of the Alliance Defense Fund attorney is given, along with his slippery slope conclusion about the judge's ruling.
Jim Campbell, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, said the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association has been operating on the Jersey shore for more than 125 years and has its history rooted in the Methodist Church.
“According to their Book of Discipline, they cannot host same sex unions on their property,” Campbell told Fox News & Commentary. “He is saying they engaged in wrongdoing under the law simply for refusing to use the property in a way that would violate their religious beliefs.”
But that’s only part of the judge’s concern. In 1989, Ocean Grove applied for a Green Acres real-estate tax exemption for a section of land that included the pavilion and the boardwalk. One condition of the exemption is that the property had to be “open for public use on an equal basis.
When they first applied for the tax exemption, civil unions were not yet legal in New Jersey. That changed in 2006 when the New Jersey Supreme Court granted same-sex couples equal rights under the state constitution.
The judge’s decision suggests that he doesn’t see a conflict with religious liberty in the case, Campbell said. Metzger rejected the church’s contention that the pavilion was an extension of its wedding ministry.
But Campbell said the ruling could have troublesome implications for religious groups across the state –including the possibility that churches may be forced to host same sex unions in their houses of worship.
“That’s the danger of this ruling,” Campbell said. “It could be applied to other religious entities and it could be applied to other places of worship.”
No.  The ruling was specific.  The goals of the LGBTQ Community, as expressed by Mr. Goldstein are specific.  There is no threat to religion in New Jersey.

Kudos to Judge Metzger and the New Jersey ACLU.  May New Jersey find swift passage of their marriage equality legislation.


  1. Open for public use on an equal basis? Yes! This means that as a man I am free to use the ladies restroom on that property whenever I so choose. It's now my right to equal access under the law. I also won't be lifting the toilet seat and I don't care if that offends or seems improper to anyone. It's my right!

    1. It looks like you, Anonymous, did not read the article. This is about private property that is rented out. As with any rental, if one leaves the facilities damaged, then one must pay for clean up. Not quite the same as public access to a bathroom (where one should still clean up any mess after using the loo).


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