When your time comes to stand up for what is right, will you have what it takes? Luisa Paster and Harriet Bernstein did, and ever since that act of courage, conservatives have cast the couple as aggressors in their imaginary “War on Christianity.” But last week, Judge Solomon Metzger affirmed the findings of a 2008 New Jersey State Division of Civil Rights investigation, ruling the couple was illegally discriminated against. Judge Metzger’s written decision makes a blatant lie out of a favorite Republican anti-gay marriage talking point: that a New Jersey Methodist group, The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, will be forced to allow same-sex unions on their private property despite their religious objections. It turns out, the Association was not so much victim of a “War on Christianity” as it was caught in it’s own scam to cheat on their taxes. So this week, the crash and burn of the Legend of The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is On Our Radar.
In 2007, Harriet Bernstein was a retired school administrator, and a grandmother. Luisa Paster was a retired librarian. They weren’t activists. They weren’t looking for a fight. If they were looking for anything, it was a second act in their lives. The two met at a resort in the Poconos and fell in love. New Jersey allows civil unions, and they thought it would be wonderful to have a commitment ceremony at the picturesque pavilion of a local recreation area where many couples before them had stood amid nature and promised to love and cherish one another. This couple is nobody’s idea of scary, except perhaps for the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association’s, the Methodist group who owns the recreation area, dubbed, “God’s square mile on the Jersey Shore,” where the couple wanted to hold their celebration. They said no. No way! Not you! So the couple did what Americans who feel they have been wronged do. They sued.
The saga of Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association – which from 2008 to 2011 boasted as its president Scott Rasmussen, founder and president of the right-wing polling company, Rasmussen Reports – is a favorite talking point of Republicans. In their version of this story, the Methodists who own the camp are being forced by “big government” to allow Paster and Bernstein, and an ensuing parade of same-sex couples, to marry in their park. Fox News used the headline: ”Judge Finds Following the Christian Faith is Wrong.” Conservatives insist the Ocean Grove story confirms there is a war being waged against Christians. But here’s the reality that reared up this week in Judge Metzger’s ruling: except for the part about the Methodists owning the Camp, NONE of those things are true.
Under New Jersey law, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association could have kept their camp completely private. They also had the option of opening the camp for public use but protecting it under a state provision that allows religious organizations to exempt themselves from hosting people or events that are at odds with their religious faith. (That’s right, never mentioned by the Republicans who tell this story, there already exists in New Jersey law a “carve out” that would have allowed the camp to legally discriminate against Paster and Bernstein.) But the Camp Meeting Association chose neither of those options.
The Methodists decided protecting their anti-gay “values” and keeping same-sex couples from using their camp was not their priority. Instead, they applied for the “Green Acres” real estate subsidy New Jersey offers for conservation or recreational property, knowing that one of the requirements for the tax break was that the camp would be “open for public use on an equal basis.” When they refused to allow Paster and Bernstein to use the camp pavilion in the same way they allowed dozens of other heterosexual couples to do in the past, the Association breached that contract. It is that simple. So says Judge Metzger.
In Republican talking points land, an unfavorable decision regarding Ocean Grove Camp by Judge Metzler would force the Methodists to allow Paster and Bernstein and untold hordes of libidinous same-sex couples to use their property or risk paying huge damage claims. In reality, none of that happened. The couple affirmed their civil union at a fishing pier a few miles from the Ocean Grove Camp in 2007. Ocean Grove can relax. They no longer need a place to declare their love and devotion. And the couple didn’t ask for a dime in damages. They just wanted the acknowledgement that by refusing them, the Camp Association had done them wrong.
The Camp lost its property subsidy. That was its only punishment. Contrary to Republican lore, the Camp was forced to host exactly zero same-sex unions. Once it lost the “Green Acres” tax exemption it lied to obtain, Ocean Grove Camp decided to sign up for that “religious exemption” after all, and they are now free to legally act out their “values,” keeping the Christian trees safe from gay influence.
Luisa Paster and Harriet Bernstein are together and thriving. Their fight for their civil rights led to them being named co-presidents of the Ocean Grove Civic Group, a community action organization born out of support for the couple, which now helps local businesses by staging street fairs and distributing coupon books, and other such subversive lesbian behavior. The group’s thirteen member board is almost exclusively gay and lesbian, but the membership is not. The ladies estimate about 40% of their “emergency response” mailing list is straight – but admit (happily) they really have no way of telling. They appear to have found that second act.
Facts have never gotten in the way of a good Republican “victimhood” tale, but with Judge Metzler’s decision, those who claim The Ocean Grove Camp Association is a victim the “War on Christianity” have lost their moral high ground. They have been outed as a group to whom saving a little money meant more than fidelity to what they claim is their moral core. Do we really believe them now when they say the “sanctity of marriage” is all that matters to them?
I have no doubt the Conservatives will try to spin Judge Metzger’s ruling as ducking the “real issue.” I also have no doubt their storytelling will continue. Their facility to morph reality into a fact-free fable means it is up to all of us to know the truth, and to repeat the truth whenever the fairy tale of The Ocean Grove Camp resurfaces. Let’s keep the true story of the Ocean Grove Camp Association – renown tax cheats – On Our Radar.
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle. Follow me on Twitter at @uncucumbered.
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