For most ministers, accepting a position at Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association would have been easy. After all, this Christian retreat center is one of the jewels of the Eastern Seaboard – tucked on a New Jersey peninsula between two lakes and the beautiful Atlantic, and home to the largest array of Victorian architecture in the country. It also offers an outstanding array of teaching, preaching, and entertainment events.
Our community is a place rich in history – founded just after the Civil War by Methodist ministers and lay people looking for a place to escape the crowded cities (New York City is just an hour north) and spend some time in prayer and worship. The Methodists bought the land and then obtained a charter from the state legislature setting Ocean Grove apart as “a place on the shore for the perpetual worship of Jesus Christ.”
Today, Ocean Grove is no longer an independent municipality, but homeowners in the area lease their land from the Association, and people around here feel a little protective of the place. The wooden auditorium, built in 1869, is a national historical landmark. A boardwalk runs the half-mile length of our beach, and midway down it is a beautiful open-air pavilion that is the picturesque setting for many of Ocean Grove’s church activities: daily Bible studies, weekly worship services, concerts that draw Gospel music groups from all over the country each year.
As I said, the opportunity to minister at such a cherished property is a rare privilege, but my wife and I didn’t jump at the chance right away. We really loved our ministry at a local non-denominational church, but after much prayer, were convinced that Ocean Grove was where the Lord was leading. In early 2007, she and I became the chief administrative officers.
Looking back, now, I’m glad we weren’t too easily persuaded. Given what’s happened here these last two years, it helps to know our being here was God’s idea – not ours.
“What’s happened” began just as we took over. Early in 2007, in response to a state court mandate, the New Jersey legislature fabricated “civil unions” for homosexual couples. Since Ocean Grove was a very popular site for weddings, what came next was only a matter of time: in mid-March, a couple asked to use our pavilion for their same-sex ceremony.
“I’m sorry, the answer will have to be no,” I said, explaining that our refusal was based in large part on our commitment to honoring The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. (Apart from Ocean Grove’s Christian heritage and traditions, all of the voting members of our governing board are United Methodist, and most feel firmly bound to honor the Book of Discipline.)
We quickly realized what we‘d have to do next. To avoid charges of discrimination against same-sex couples, Ocean Grove announced that no more weddings of any kind would be allowed at the Pavilion.
Within days, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, acting on a complaint from the aforementioned couple, announced it would investigate Ocean Grove for sexual discrimination, and would prosecute any violation “to the full extent of the law.” The ominous sound of that prompted us to contact the Alliance Defense Fund.
ADF helped the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association sue the state civil rights division in federal court for violating our religious liberties as protected by the First Amendment. New Jersey law is very specific in stating that no church or minister will be compelled to perform civil unions; nevertheless the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights declared that it had found probable cause that we had, in fact, discriminated against the same-sex couple that approached us.
The sticking point seems to be on whether the Ocean Grove pavilion is, as the state insists, a public accommodation (which would compel us to perform the ceremony) or, as we contend, a place of worship (which would give us the right to refuse). Despite a century-long record of hosting regular Bible studies and worship services, the Pavilion doesn’t look like a traditional church facility. And despite the reality, the state seems determined to base its decision on architecture, not utility.
A federal judge sent our case back to the state courts in 2007; the investigation has continued ever since. Reactions from the community – and around the country – have been sharply divided. Many people (including some Christians) say, “Why fight it? Just go along with the tide,” while others are very pleased and supportive that we’re taking a stand based on deeply held religious beliefs. I receive letters and e-mails every day telling us everything from “You’re the devil incarnate” to “We’re praying for you.”
It’s a curious affirmation of the Lord’s leading us to Ocean Grove “for such a time as this” that, deep down, we haven’t taken the hateful words personally. We’ve felt God’s presence, and can tell the Spirit is doing the heavy lifting. From that perspective, this experience has been uplifting.
And ADF has been sensational. We’ve been blown away by their willingness to do whatever it takes … to listen, to pray with us, to present our case in public forums. Their professionalism – and their commitment to the Gospel – is second to none. For us, ADF is an answer to prayer.
And we’re still praying – for His wisdom, that we can continue to be and to do what He’s called us to be and do: minister His love and truth to all those who make up this diverse and beautiful community – including those who engage in homosexual behavior.
Do you know someone who would want to learn more about his or her constitutionally protected rights as a pastor?