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September 4, 2009

ACLU to Separation of Church & State: DROP DEAD!

By Chaz Valenza

It may be your taxpayer $$$, but to them it's God's beach and off limits to you. Welcome to Sunday morning in Ocean Grove, NJ. Did the ACLU - NJ care? Nope.


Ocean Grove, NJ – September 1, 2009

As the summer chills to a close here, I received the sad news that the ACLU has turned down my petition to challenge an organization that accepts taxpayer money but denies beach access based on religious beliefs.

Sunny Day - Empty Beach: Just the way God wants it.

More God's Beach/Your $$$ Photos: CLICK HERE

The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (OGCMA), a religious ministry whose trustees must all be members of the United Methodist Church, receives an annual $500,000 taxpayer largesse in the form of a New Jersey open space tax exemption.

For decades they have closed the beach to all on summer Sunday mornings during their worship services.

No, it's not just no lifeguards on duty. They literally rope off the beach. No one is allowed on the sand or near the water.

The OGCMA's beach property has also benefited from another taxpayer financed bounty. In 2002, they were the recipient of a major Army Corp of Engineers beach replenishment project financed with millions of state and federal dollars.

I filed my complaint with the ACLU of NJ on Sunday, June 28, 2009, at the start of the beach season. In the rejection letter, ACLU Intake Manager A. Herrarte said, “Unfortunately, the ACLU-NJ is unable to assist you in this matter. We are a private, non-profit organization with limited resources; therefore, we must be very selective in choosing our cases.”

The ACLU-NJ has taken a number of cases to protect the freedom of religion for individuals. I wonder why it's not important when a religious organization steps over the line? The OGCMA clearly accepts taxpayer dollars and then denies beach access for religious reasons to a space that, by law, should always be open. In New Jersey beach access to the water line is a right.

Ocean Grove: Tax Exempt - But it's still closed on Sunday Mornings

Shouldn't the ACLU at least want to make a few phone calls about this egregious case of discrimination based on religious belief? Year after year, thousands of beach goers come to Ocean Grove on sunny summer Sunday mornings only to find their tax dollars hard at work keeping them off the beach.

The OGCMA is also embroiled in another issue involving discrimination and denial of public facility access.

Though gay and lesbian couples have the right to civil unions in New Jersey, the OGCMA claims it has a First Amendment right to deny civil union ceremonies in their boardwalk pavilion, where for decades heterosexual couples have celebrated the exchange of wedding vows.

See: Ocean Grove slaps gays in the face, Advocate.com.

In this case, they have staked out the pavilion as a religious facility, a church by definition, in the midst of the tax exempt New Jersey open space.

A little background, Ocean Grove was a theocracy since it's founding in 1896 as a Christian summer retreat. Though the religious governance of Ocean Grove was abolished by a 1979 court ruling, many issues regarding the rights of residents have never been adequately addressed.

Prior to the court action, the town enforced strict blue laws with their own theocratic police force. Cars and shopping were strictly forbidden in town on Sundays and, of course, the beach was closed until 12:30 PM.

Today, residents pay both a leasehold fee to the OGCMA and property taxes to Neptune Township. The township never made a claim on the community's open spaces including several parks and the beach, but it does provide all municipal services including police protection, road maintenance and garbage disposal.

I believe the OGCMA should remedy this situation in one of two ways: Abjure their New Jersey Green Acres Tax Exemption and pay all their back taxes. This would allow the organization to run the beach anyway they wish within the confines of state beach access law. Or, allow beach access, paid or otherwise, on Sunday mornings.

I am disappointed that the ACLU, which has done so much to preserve our constitutional freedoms, made a decision to forego this important case where taxpayer money is used to the public detriment.

Submitters Bio:

Chaz Valenza is writer and small business owner in New Jersey. He earned his MBA from New York University's Stern School of Business. His current feature film project is "Single Point Failure" an insider's account of how the Reagan Administration caused the greatest tragedy of the space age based on Richard C. Cook's book "Challenger Revealed." He is a former Director of Public Information for Planned Parenthood of NYC. His website is: www.WordsWillNever.com