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Posts for December, 2009

If they really cared about Ocean Grove…

Timothy Kincaid

December 14th, 2009

Anti-gay activists may be on the verge of losing another argument… by winning it.

Anti-marriage activism has no legitimate intellectual principle from which to argue. Appeals to tradition, religion, and “the children, the children” may sound compelling in an emotional TV ad, but they are simply cover for the fact that there is no logical reason that equality under the law should be denied to gay people other than animus.

So anti-gay activists tell stories, tales, and myths to portray gay people as aggressors and good God-fearing church folk as their helpless victims. Of course, they make strategic adjustments to their stories – what an objective observer might call “lying through their teeth” – but they try to keep at least a kernel of truth so that they can’t be accused of just making poop up.

One of the favorite stories that anti-gays like to tell is that of a church in New Jersey that lost its tax exempt status because it wouldn’t conduct gay marriages.

Here’s the tale from the Manhattan Declaration:

In New Jersey, after the establishment of a quasi­marital “civil unions” scheme, a Methodist institution was stripped of its tax exempt status when it declined, as a matter of religious conscience, to permit a facility it owned and operated to be used for ceremonies blessing homosexual unions.

And from the National Organization for Marriage’s infamous “gathering storm” ad:

“I am part of a New Jersey church group punished by the government because we cannot support same-sex marriage.”

In fact, you’ll hardly find a litany of imagined aggrievances that anti-gays chant that does not have some version of this tale. Of course, none of them tell the truth.

The facts are that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association owns a small beachside town in New Jersey. Although Ocean Grove has many areas that are restricted for religious use, for decades the beach, the boardwalk, and a pavilion have been open to the public.

As part of the state’s Green Acres program, those who make their land open to all residents get special property tax benefits denied to other property owners. And so those areas that were public use (but not the private religious property) had received exemptions.

However, when the Association decided that the pavilion was a religious building that could only be used for heterosexual ceremonies, and not gay ceremonies, they no longer qualified for the exemption and the pavilion lost its special status. While the beach and the boardwalk remained privileged and received preferential treatment, the pavilion was treated like the rest of the Association’s property.

But all of that could change.

An added provision to the proposed New Jersey marriage equality bill would exempt churches, and church-affiliated organizations like the Camp Meeting Association, from having to provide services to same-sex couples. And further, it bars the state from punishing those religious organizations that so discriminate.

Which means that the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association could return to making their pavilion open to wedding ceremonies for everyone – Hindus, Muslims, Wiccans, Atheists, and Methodists – everyone except gay folk.

And you know what? I’m OK with that.

So here’s an offer to all of those anti-gay activists who have been telling the world that they are all so so so so very concerned about the Methodists in New Jersey: Support the marriage bill and you can get your ‘special rights’ back for the Ocean Grove pavilion. And we won’t even complain about it.

Fair enough?

What do you say?

UPDATE: The language of the section is as follows. The amendment starts at 1b.:

5. (New section) 1a.1 No member of the clergy of any religion authorized to solemnize marriage and no religious society, institution or organization in this State shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or by Article I, paragraph 4 of the New Jersey Constitution.

1b. No religious society, institution or organization in this State serving a particular faith or denomination shall be compelled to provide space, services, advantages, goods, or privileges related to the solemnization, celebration or promotion of marriage if such solemnization, celebration or promotion of marriage is in violation of the beliefs of such religious society, institution or organization.

c. No civil claim or cause of action against any religious society, institution or organization, or any employee thereof, shall arise out of any refusal to provide space, services, advantages, goods, or privileges pursuant to this section. No State action to penalize or withhold benefits from any such religious society, institution or organization, or any employee thereof, shall result from any refusal to provide space, services, advantages, goods, or privileges pursuant to this section.

d. Nothing in this act shall be construed to limit the effect of section 2 of P.L.1979, c.428 (C.18A:35-4.7).

No California Doctors Were Harmed In The Making Of This Commercial

Jim Burroway

April 8th, 2009

She says she’s a “California doctor,” but she’s actually an actress playing one on T.V.

That about as accurate as things get on the “Crazy Dingbat Insane Ookie Spookie” advertising campaign unleashed by Maggie Gallagher’s National Organization for Marriage (NOM). In fact, that “California doctor” actress was one of many that had auditioned for the campaign. The Human Rights Campaign was able to obtain videos of some of the auditions for the ad:

YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image

According to the HRC, the ad is set to run eight times per day in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and California. Because the ad is slated to play in states where marriage equality is at the fore, it’s important to look not only at the bad acting on display in the ad, but the false information behind it.

“I’m a California doctor who must choose between my faith and my job.”
This California “doctor” refers to a case that has nothing to do with marriage. Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled that a doctor that offers artificial insemination services cannot pick and chose who to offer services to.

This was an important decision, and it should have been a no-brainer. Think of it: what if the decision had gone the other way. It would then have been legal for a doctor to refuse to treat any LGBT person for any illness, condition, or injury simply because doing so might have run counter to their “religious beliefs.” Is that how Maggie Gallagher and the National Organization for Marriage would have it?

“I’m part of a NJ church group punished by the government because we can’t support same-sex marriage.”
As we reported last December, this “New Jersey church group” story has become a new favorite falsehood in an attempt to scare people of faith. This “church group” actually refers to the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which is not a church. It operates the Auditorium Pavilion, which was made exempt from state property tax in exchange for being open for public use and access. It is not a religious facility, nor are several other facilities built on land owned by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association — including stores, restaurants, hotels, private homes and a beach boardwalk alongside a public beach.

The facilities were granted a tax exemption by the state of New Jersey on the provision that they be maintained as public accommodations. (Two chapels are tax exempt due to religious use, but they are not a part of the dispute.) The Auditorium Pavilion has been rented out to the general public for all sorts of events, including concerts, debates and even Civil War reenactments — none of which are religious in character. In March 2007, a lesbian couple was rejected by the Association when they tried to rent the Pavilion for a civil union ceremony. They filed a complaint with the State Division on Civil Rights and won. A state commissioner explained:

“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.”

The state of New Jersey didn’t challenge the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association’s beliefs about homosexuality. It only held that a public facility must remain open to the public — and that means all of the public.

“I’m a Massachusetts parent helplessly watching public schools teach my son that gay marriage is OK.”
This refers to David Parker, the Massachusetts parent who sued his local school district when they provided students with a book called Who’s in a Family? The book illustrated various family constructions: single parents, mom-dad-kids, grandparents, mixed-race families, and same-sex parents. Parker complained to the school district, demanding that the district change its curriculum to accommodate his religious belief that any discussion of same-sex parenting must be excluded — including any conversations about children of gay or lesbian parents.

Now this is a difficult requirement for the school district to meet. After all, there were children of gay and lesbian parents in those same schools. Should teachers pretend that their parents don’t exist? Should the district bar those parents from school functions? Should kids be prohibited from talking about their families?

The school district found Parker’s demand to be impossible to meet. And besides, they weren’t teaching that “gay marriage is OK,” just that it happens and some of the children from those families attend school, and other kids in school shouldn’t treat them badly because of it.

That didn’t satisfy Parker, who sued the school district in Federal Court. In February 2007, U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf dismissed the lawsuit. Parker appealed, but the three judge appeals panel unanimously upheld Judge Wolf’s decision:

“Public schools are not obliged to shield individual students from ideas which potentially are religiously offensive, particularly when the school imposes no requirement that the student agree with or affirm those ideas, or even participate in discussions about them,” the court said in its ruling.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

So there you have it. Three claims, three lies. That’s a remarkable achievement for a group that wants to stand for truth.

Another Perspective on the Ocean Grove Pavilion

Timothy Kincaid

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.”

Religious Business, Public Access, and Discrimination

Timothy Kincaid

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:

Religious liberty
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.