A federal court this week upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a New Jersey organization that has been at the center of a court battle over a lesbian civil-union ceremony.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed July 15 that a District Court was correct in dismissing a suit filed by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which sought to halt a state investigation into claims it discriminated against a lesbian couple by denying the couple use of its pavilion for their civil-union ceremony.
The three-judge panel of the court, however, also remanded the case back to District Court, advising the lower court to issue a ruling on whether or not the organization would be justified in banning same-sex couples from holding civil-union ceremonies on other property the organization owns.
The case traces back to March 2007, when Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster contacted the association to ask if they could use its pavilion for their civil union. The group denied their request, saying it would contradict the beliefs of the United Methodist Church, with which it is affiliated.
Bernstein and Paster filed a complaint in June 2007 with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, arguing the organization violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, among other classes, in such areas as employment, housing and public accommodations. Although the association says the pavilion is a private, religious structure, it has rented it for concerts, weddings and other events. Additionally, passersby on the boardwalk frequent it, which Bernstein and Paster contended would make it a public accommodation.
The association owns all of the land in the 1-square-mile Ocean Grove, which includes the pavilion, the beach and part of the ocean. It previously received both federal and state funding but, since the complaint was filed, had its federal tax-exempt status revoked by the Department of Environmental Protection, which maintained the organization did not follow the exemption’s stipulation that its property must be open to all individuals on an equal basis.
The association filed a federal suit in August 2007, arguing that the state investigation is a violation of the organization’s First Amendment rights, but Judge Joel Pisano dismissed the suit in November 2007, leading to last week’s ruling. The appeals court upheld Pisano’s assertion that the federal court should not interfere in cases that should be handled through state-level judicial proceedings.
Since Pisano’s ruling, the DCR issued a finding of probable cause in December 2008, ruling that the evidence indicates the association was operating the pavilion as a public accommodation and may have violated the LAD. The case is expected to be heard before the bench within the next few months.
Joan Caputo, chairperson of Ocean Grove United, a collection of LGBT and ally supporters, called this week’s ruling a “victory,” adding the case does not belong in federal court.
“This federal case in my mind is a fabrication by [association attorneys], the Alliance Defense Fund and the Camp Meeting Association to turn a local issue into a national issue,” Caputo said. “I think that it serves the Alliance Defense Fund and people who think in that way and allows them to raise money to further their cause. I think that this has nothing to do with Ocean Grove, but rather they’ve found a case that allows them to make a mountain out of a mole hill, which is exactly what this federal case has done.”