Group discriminated in same sex civil union, judge says

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 13, 2012 8:08 PM
Group discriminated in same sex civil union, judge says

(Reuters) - By Jennifer Golson

Jan 13 (Reuters) - Advocates of same-sex marriage won a victory in New Jersey with a ruling that a religious organization violated state law when it prevented a same-sex couple from using its boardwalk pavilion for a civil union ceremony.

The couple, Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster, believed it was discrimination and filed a complaint against the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which refused in 2007 to allow them to use its open-air seating area that faces the Atlantic Ocean, according to the decision on Thursday by Administrative Law Judge Solomon Metzger.

In the ruling, the judge said the organization violated its promise to keep the property open to public use in exchange for a tax exemption under the state's Green Acres program that promotes and protects a system of interconnected open spaces.

The association is a nonprofit religious organization associated with the Methodist Church, and they own a square-mile section of Neptune, New Jersey, called Ocean Grove.

They refused to allow the couple to use the pavilion because "the notion of civil union conflicted with scriptural teaching regarding homosexuality," the ruling said.

The association argued that it deems same-gender unions sinful and that its free speech and free exercise of religion were being violated, the ruling said.

"This decision affirms New Jersey's strong protections against discrimination," said Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director for the ACLU-NJ, which represented the couple.

"When you open your doors to the public, you can't treat same-sex couples differently," she said in a statement.

Bernstein said in the same statement that she and Paster were pleased with the judge's findings.

"When we first started planning our civil union, we had no idea that it would come to this," Bernstein said. "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."

James Campbell, an attorney for the association, said it was disappointed by the decision.

"The government should not be able to force a private religious organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs," Campbell said.

Six states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.

Five other states allow civil unions, which provide state-level spousal rights to same-sex couples: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Rhode Island, according to the National Council of State Legislatures website.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)