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Religious Public Accommodations are 'Public' Accommodations

Sometime ago, in 2007, a same sex couple wanted to perform a "civil union" ceremony for their family and friends. Were New Jersey a more progressive and enlightened State - a shortcoming dramatically highlighted by the most recent election where other states moved forward on same sex rights leaving New Jersey in the dust - they would have simply been getting "married," but that's a subject I've covered exhaustively in other Blogs and I don't think I need to make that point again here. Besides, I think the national electorate, in increasing numbers, is making the point for me. But I digress.

The above having been said, as long as New Jersey continues to maintain that the best it's going to do for the present is "civil unions" in place of marriages, then same sex couples will celebrate their "civil unions" the same way that people celebrate marriages. They'll have a ceremony, followed by a party. There's a place on the Boardwalk in Ocean Grove known as the "Pavilion." It's owned and maintained by the "Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association," a religious organization.

When the same sex couple asked to perform their ceremony there, a ceremony which, had they been a heterosexual couple, would have been completely typical, they were refused. They were refused, of course, because they were a same sex couple.

The Association defended itself on "religious freedom" grounds, continuing to misunderstand that the anti-establishment clause of the Constitution is not there to protect religious rights, but rather to protect the right of the government to be free of religious principles in the creation of law and policy. That means that wherever civil rights and religion clash, civil rights must win or the United States is a fraud, as is its Constitution and all of its protestations to being especially "blessed." We become no better than any other backward theocracy. I'm pointing at you, Iran. Wanna be like Iran? Not even most people in Iran want to be like Iran.

Recently, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, our State Division that does the job of the EEOC within New Jersey, found that the Pavilion is a place of "public accommodation" within the meaning of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the State statute that does a better job of protecting against discrimination in New Jersey than the Federal statute job does here or anywhere else.

A "place of public accommodation" is a place that offers itself to members of the public. Obviously, religious institutions and pseudo religious institutions, such as the Boy Scouts, have long defended civil rights claims on the grounds that if they are exclusively private, then they are not "really" a public accommodation at all, but only seem that way.

On a certain level, this makes sense and I have no issue with it. Obviously, I don't expect a Catholic person to sue to insist that they be admitted into a Jewish Temple Congregation anymore than I would expect a private church to be forced to entertain a same sex marriage ceremony on its private church grounds. But that's not what is happening here at the Pavilion. The Pavilion, through the association, received "green acres" tax credits after a promise to keep the site accessible to the public without religious restrictions.

Shame on you, association. If you're going to make your bed, then you have to lie in it. As long as this Meeting Association decided to avail itself of "public benefits," then they have the same obligation to the public that any exclusively non-religious private entity does to be free of discrimination and how it offers itself to the public.

Interestingly, there are a number of extreme religious right groups claiming to identify themselves as seeking "freedom" and protecting "liberty" and even "family values" (which of course, through their cruelty, hatred, oppression and simple meanness, do nothing of the kind) jumping to the Association's defense.

Not friends reasonable people would want to have, seems to me. But anyway, as it happens, probably through the assistance of these super-religious "friends", the Meeting Association seems to have turned to lawyers outside this State, from Arizona, to advance arguments against your Civil Rights Law in the State of New Jersey.

Of course, not being from New Jersey, and not understanding New Jersey Law, they seem to have missed the point of our New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the values which underlie it. The DCR reached the right decision and as long as the Pavilion is no longer opened to anyone to have marriages, which is regrettable and stupid, then they are free to continue to discriminate as they please. What they should do, especially if they want to espouse the values they say their faith promotes (love, etc.) is to allow the Pavilion to be used by all couples wishing to perform civil unions, domestic partnerships or marriages.

But I guess that is expecting too much. Way to go, DCR. Shame on you, Meeting Association.

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