Religious Business, Public Access, and Discrimination
December 29th, 2008
The recent campaign against civil marriage equality for gay people was rife with misinformation, spin, falsehoods, and downright lies. And one story which was repeated to great effect was a legal dispute over the use of a privately-owned public pavilion in New Jersey.
Seldom were the claims accurate.
Take, for example, Charlene: a single-mother of two who warned on her website of the dangers of gay marriage that she had learned at church. Amidst a heap of campaign propaganda and homophobic bogus statistics was this rather hysterical retelling:
Our Pastors would be arrested for preaching against homosexuality according to the BIBLE. God’s word would be restricted! Recently, a Methodist church in New Jersey refused to marry a lesbian couple and they were sued and LOST! Now they lost their tax exemption and the government actually TAXES their tithes! That is God’s Money!!
And it was not just frantic repetition of misunderstood sermons by those who rely on their church for their information; the anti-gay media also joined in the chorus.
The Christian Examiner ran an article – ironically titled Proposition 8: Separating the Fiction from Fact – in which they delared:
CLAIM: Current California law exempts churches and other religious organizations from having to perform marriages for same-sex couples or conduct other services against their religious beliefs.
FACT 1: New Jersey’s Ocean Grove Camp, lost its tax-exempt status after refusing to allow a same-sex couple to marry on its grounds.
The problem with these astonishing facts? They are not factual.
The LA Times explained it this way:
Another “Yes on 8” canard is that the continuation of same-sex marriage will force churches and other religious groups to perform such marriages or face losing their tax-exempt status. Proponents point to a case in New Jersey, where a Methodist-based nonprofit owned seaside land that included a boardwalk pavilion. It obtained an exemption from state property tax for the land on the grounds that it was open for public use and access. Events such as weddings — of any religion — could be held in the pavilion by reservation. But when a lesbian couple sought to book the pavilion for a commitment ceremony, the nonprofit balked, saying this went against its religious beliefs.
The court ruled against the nonprofit, not because gay rights trump religious rights but because public land has to be open to everyone or it’s not public. The ruling does not affect churches’ religious tax exemptions or their freedom to marry whom they please on their private property, just as Catholic priests do not have to perform marriages for divorced people and Orthodox synagogues can refuse to provide space for the weddings of interfaith couples. And Proposition 8 has no bearing on the issue; note that the New Jersey case wasn’t about a wedding ceremony.
The facts of the story are these:
- The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, while a religious ministry, is not a church.
- The association lists two sites available for weddings on its website: Thornley Chapel and Bishop Janes Tabernacle, both of which are restricted to usage that is consistent with the United Methodist Church book of Discipline and both of which ban smoking or alcoholic beverages on the premises. The lawsuit did not involve either of these church buildings.
- SEE UPDATE BELOW – The structure where the lesbian couple requested rental was the Auditorium Pavilion. The Pavilion was not designed as a place of worship but rather was built in the 1880’s as a covering for “a scale model of 1st Century AD Jerusalem”. The Historical Society of Ocean Grove reports that the model was removed about 1950 and that “Today the Pavilion is used by the Camp Meeting Association, the Historical Society and various community groups.” It did offer its services as a wedding site until April 2007, shortly after the complaint.
- The Association owns all of the land in Ocean Grove (one square mile) but by no means is all of this property dedicated to religious use. There are a number of homes on the land who lease from the association, along with stores, restaurants, and hotels, in 99 year leases, and a beach boardwalk along the public beach.
- The Association rents out the religious meeting facilities to various groups, although it does maintain a ban on smoking and drinking on those properties. However, Ocean Grove was known as a location that was very gay-friendly and welcoming.
- The Association made the beach, the boardwalk, and the boardwalk pavilion public access property. A 1908 ruling referenced that they “had been dedicated years ago by the association as a public highway”. As privately-held public lands, the beach properties were available for a number of benefits including federal state and local funds for repairs and maintenance and exemption from local property taxes through participation in the state’s Green Acres Program.
- After a lesbian couple was rejected by the Association when they tried to rent the space for a civil union ceremony in March 2007, they contacted the State Division on Civil Rights to make a discrimination complaint.
- The State of New Jersey reinstated the Association’s exemption from property tax for the beach and the rest of the boardwalk, but stated that it could not continue to exempt the pavilion as it was not truly open to the public. (NY Times)
“When people hear the words ‘open space,’ we want them to think not just of open air and land, but that it is open to all people,” said [Lisa Jackson, state commissioner of environmental protection]. “And when the public subsidizes it with tax breaks, it goes with the expectation that it is not going to be parsed out, whether it be by activity or any particular beliefs.”
As we can see, the situation in no way mirrors the “facts” as presented by anti-gay activists and those who choose to believe them. No church lost its exempt status, no tithes were taxed, and it wasn’t related to a same-sex marriage in New Jersey (the right to which remains denied to New Jersey residents).
But we can expect even more distortion and truthiness in the days to come. In a move likely to inspire more untruthful rants in the anti-gay media, today the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights ruled further in favor of the lesbian couple (AP)
The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights said its investigation found that the refusal of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to rent the oceanfront spot to the couple for their same-sex union in March 2007 violated the public accommodation provisions of the state’s Law Against Discrimination.
The legal resolutions on this case are far from settled.
Meanwhile, the parties in the dispute are awaiting a ruling from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on whether the issue should be decided in the division on civil rights or in federal courts. A lower federal court has ruled that the state could consider the case.
This case highlights some of the conflict between religous and civil separations.
Churches can and do often operate outside the realm of the faith and doctrine. A church may own performance halls, bookstores, restaurants, or a great many other establishments, some of which have little to no religious function. And the further away they get from their central purpose, the more gray and hazy become the distinctions that allow them to claim religious exemption from civil rights laws.
A Catholic bookstore, owned and operated by a parish for use by parishoners, is probably exempt from hiring those who do not share Catholic faith. But it becomes much less clear that a Catholic-affiliated hospital who accepts Medicare and insurance payments can refuse to hire a Jewish doctor or provide care to a black Muslim.
As anti-discrimination laws run up against anti-gay theology, churches will have to decide whether they wish to ‘uphold their doctrines’ or keep their sideline businesses. This will become particularly sticky when those sidelines seem to be part of their mission and when those businesses are facing competition from secular sources. And public financing only complicates the matter.
Take, for example, the feeding of the poor.
As an act of Christian charity, many churches or other religious organizations make an effort to provide food to the less fortunate. Not always, but quite often, this charitable act comes with the price of listening to a sermon or having someone pray with/over/about the hungry. And while most of these efforts are voluntary, some are large enough and sufficiently well funded so as to employ staff.
This is not a problem when its a local church helping out the neighbors. But churches have, in many instances, ceased thinking of their efforts as a duty or an outreach of their faith and have instead began to view their efforts as a service provider for the needy. And, as such, they see the government and public funds as a logical source for paying for their efforts.
What would have been considered bizarre but a century ago – “faith based” initiatives funded by taxpayers but managed according to religious doctrines – now seems quite acceptable and even laudable. And religious organizations are clamoring for their place at the public trough, while simultaneously demanding exemptions from government strings or any duty to the taxpayers.
The Ocean Grove Pavilion is but a very visible instance of a religious body seeking the benefits of taxpayer largess while demanding the privileges of religious exemption. I expect many more such conflicts will arise.
UPDATE – 1/26/10
The Auditorium Pavilion is a separate structure from the Boardwalk Pavilion, the location requested by the couple for their civil union ceremony.