Another Perspective on the Ocean Grove Pavilion
December 30th, 2008
The Transplanted Lawyer at Not a Potted Plant blogsite provides another perspective about the decision to allow a lesbian couple to go forward with their lawsuit against the Ocean Grove Meeting Association for its refusal to rent the couple the boardwalk Pavilion for their civil union. In my commentary, I focused on the finding of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights that one lesbian couple’s suit could advance. He finds more relevance in the fact that another lesbian couple was denied.
That two couples suing the Association with different results brings a contrast, one that should provide comfort to those worried about the infringment on religious rights and one that further illustrates the dishonesty in the way in which anti-gays have spun the story.
In Bernstein v. Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a lesbian couple wanted to perform a civil union ceremony at a beachside facility owned and operated by a [Methodist] faith organization (it appears to not be a church per se, but it affiliates and identifies with [Methodist] Christianity). The New Jersey agency investigating the complaint found probable cause to permit the charge of discrimination proceed. But, in Moore v. Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, another lesbian couple wanted to perform their civil union ceremony at the exact same facility. In that case, no probable cause was found. Both case results were announced on the same day — yesterday.
Same facts, same defendant, same facility, decided on the same day, but different results.
The reason for different results is because the circumstances had changed. When Bernstein requested usage, the Pavilion had been used for a wide variety of purposes – religious and non-religious – including weddings of people of all faiths or no faith at all. All that was required was to pay a fee. Thus it was a “public accomodation”. And the sole reason for rejection of Bernstein’s usage of this public accomodation was that their union was of persons of the same sex.
But when Moore requested usage, the Association had changed their policy and tightened the purpose of the Pavilion. They no longer allowed weddings in the space at all and limited those who were allowed use of the space based on religious affiliation. Thus, the space was no longer a public accomodation but private property with restricted use. Therefore, religious exemptions again applied.
He further noted that this process, presenting one’s discrimination case before a board before a lawsuit, is further protection for religious bodies.
The Transplanted Lawyer found three lessons:
the first lesson is that someone who claims to be the victim of discrimination cannot immediately walk into court and file a successful lawsuit. They must present their charge to a state or federal agency for investigation first, and that agency has to investigate and decide if there’s any merit.
there is the second lesson about the law of discrimination. You are subject to the requirements of non-discrimination only if you are engaged in something called a “public accommodation.” So if you don’t want same-sex wedding ceremonies in your church, don’t rent your church out to people who are not members of your church’s congregation.
That’s the third lesson — [when invoking freedom of expression,] commercial activity does not enjoy the same level of Constitutional protection as expressive activity.
I found the arguments well thought out and easy to comprehend. And I think that the Tranplanted Lawyer very well expressed the moral of this story:
When the church stops being a church and starts being a banquet hall, then yes, it is vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit because it’s not acting like a church anymore. The message to churches that are opposed to same sex marriages is “stay true to your faith and the law will be on your side.”