God’s Square Mile: Religious Freedom and Gay Rights

Ocean Grove N.J., a one square mile town along the North Jersey seashore, is known for its state and national historic designation as having the largest aggregate of Victorian and early 20th century structures in America. Founded in 1869 during the holiness movement by a group of ministers and friends, its mission is to establish a permanent Christian camp meeting community with the purpose of providing opportunities for spiritual birth, growth, and renewal through worship, education, cultural, and recreational programs for persons of all ages in a Christian seaside setting.

While much has changed since its founding in 1869, much remains the same. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Christian ministry organization, owns all of the land in Ocean Grove and leases it to homeowners and businesses for 99-year renewable terms. It’s still a dry town and the beach is still closed on Sunday mornings. 114 tents, which are occupied from May to September, continue to frame the Great Auditorium just as they have done since 1869.

However, a drive through the town of historic Victorian homes reveals more than latticed rooftops and widow’s peaks. On many homes hang blue flags with yellow equal signs, which indicate support for same-sex couples being allowed to have civil union ceremonies on Camp Meeting Association property, such as the boardwalk pavilion. Historically, the pavilion has been used for bible studies, church services, gospel choir performances, and weddings.

As a result of a lawsuit filed in 2007, ideological differences intensified between neighbors who have peacefully lived in a tight-knit community-those who are gay and those who ardently believe that homosexuality is a sin. (In 2012, a State Administrative Law Judge ruled that a gay couple’s 2007 petition to celebrate their civil union at the pavilion, which was denied by the Camp Meeting Association for religious reasons, was a violation of the state’s law against discrimination. As a result, the pavilion lost its tax-exempt status and the Camp Meeting Association paid a fine.)

Ocean Grove is a microcosm of what has been taking place across the country. Same-sex couples are challenging religious organizations’ beliefs citing that a religious belief such as gay marriage being a sin cannot be used to violate a citizen’s right to equal treatment. Religious organizations are losing.

Consider several examples.

  • In 2001 New York State’s highest court ordered Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, an Orthodox Jewish institution, to allow same-sex couples in its married dormitory citing that having not done so violated the city’s sexual orientation discrimination law.
  • In 2006, Catholic Charities of Boston refused to place children with same-sex couples, which Massachusetts law required them to do. As a result, Catholic Charities no longer offers adoptions.
  • In 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that a Christian fertility doctor could not refuse to provide in vitro fertilization to a lesbian couple because of the doctor’s religious beliefs. The Court ruled that religious belief was an “insufficient” reason to engage in “discrimination.”
  • In 2009, The Fourth District Court of Appeals upheld California Lutheran High School’s right, as a private, religious organization to expel students who it believed were having a lesbian relationship. This case was reported to have been appealed to California’s Supreme Court.
  • In 2010, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed against Eastern Michigan University by a graduate student who was dismissed from her counseling program because she refused on religious grounds to counsel gay clients.
  • (Likewise, in 2001, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that an employer’s statutory obligation to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs did not include accommodating a counselor’s request to not have to counsel a lesbian on relationship issues.)
  • In 2012, the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled that a photographer could not refuse to photograph a gay couple because of her religious beliefs. She was fined for violating that state’s Human Rights Act. Oral arguments were heard in March 2013 before the New Mexico Supreme Court.

The unfortunate trend is that anti-discrimination laws are predominantly trumping religious freedom laws.

Unfortunately, the law is increasingly denying doctors, photographers, counselors, and educators the ability to freely exercise their religious convictions. By forcing professionals to choose between conscience and career, Christians may have to choose a new profession or figure out a way to apply their convictions differently. For example, rather than allow civil unions to take place at the pavilion, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association chose to say no to everyone-there can no longer be any marriage ceremonies on the pavilion.

What are Christians to do? Christians are to maintain their convictions no matter what the courts rule and live in harmony with their gay neighbors. The challenge for Christians in Ocean Grove, and throughout the country, will be to maintain the balance between speaking truth and acting in love when engaging with the gay community.

April 8, 2013

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