Free to Believe

Scott and Nancy Hoffman

Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association: Ocean Grove, New Jersey

In February 2007, the New Jersey legislature legalized civil unions for same-sex couples. Soon after, same-sex couples began asking to use Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association’s beachfront pavilion for their same-sex ceremonies. Under the leadership of Scott and Nancy Hoffman, the Association declined, based on its religious beliefs. In response, some couples filed discrimination complaints with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, asserting that Ocean Grove’s pavilion—though a place of worship—must be a place of public accommodation subject to the state’s nondiscrimination law.

The religious retreat, tucked away on a New Jersey peninsula between two lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, lies within a 50-mile radius of one-sixth of the country’s population. Seaside Sunday services and Gospel music concerts often draw in passing tourists who have no intention of going to church. However, suing couples claimed that the structure owned by a religious group and used for religious services was not a worship facility.

The Association’s leadership tried to head off the legal battle by announcing that no more weddings, of any kind, would be hosted in the pavilion. However, the action was not enough to stave off criticism. The Ocean Grove Association, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, then Alliance Defense Fund), filed a federal lawsuit (Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association of the United Methodist Church v. Vespa-Papaleo) against the state of New Jersey for violating its First Amendment rights.

“Religious groups have the right to make their own decisions without government interference.  The government can’t force a private Christian organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs,” said Brian Raum, senior legal counsel for the ADF. “This action by the state of New Jersey is a gross violation of the First Amendment.” 

A federal court dismissed the lawsuit and cleared the way for a five-year legal battle before the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. On January 12, 2012, a judge with the State of New Jersey Office of Administrative Law issued the ruling in Bernstein v. Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association. The judge recommended that the New Jersey Civil Rights Division find the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in violation of a state nondiscrimination law.

On October 23, 2012, the director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights released a decision that a Christian ministry engaged in “wrongdoing” for abiding by its faith. ADF’s Legal Counsel Jim Campbell made the following statement, “The government should not be able to force a Christian organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs. Both the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions protect the freedom of faith-based groups to use their property in a manner consistent with those beliefs. That freedom trumps any state law that conflicts with it. Our client, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, will review the director’s decision and consider its options.” 

In 2013, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association came together with the pro-homosexual group which organized to oppose their policy, Ocean Grove United, to hold a fundraiser to help rebuild the town’s boardwalk, which had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy. However, the Camp Meeting Association no longer hosts weddings of any kind in its pavilion.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom