It may be your taxpayer $$$, but to them it's God's beach and off limits to you. Welcome to Sunday morning in Ocean Grove, NJ. Did the ACLU - NJ care? Nope.
NJ – September 1, 2009
As the summer chills to a close here, I received the sad
news that the ACLU has turned down my petition to challenge an organization
that accepts taxpayer money but denies beach access based on religious beliefs.
More God's Beach/Your $$$ Photos: CLICK HERE
Sunny Day - Empty Beach: Just the way God wants it.
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
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
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.
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